Newman ’88 urges graduates to help
“bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice”
In a convocation address both celebrating the Class of 2021 and marking her own retirement from Duke Law, Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor of Law Theresa Newman ’88 charged graduates to combine hope and action to effect justice and praised their countless acts of compassion and generosity toward others during a time of extraordinary challenges.
“You met every typical challenge of a rigorous law school education — and it is rigorous — and then somehow you pulled it all out to meet the truly extraordinary challenges of this year,” Newman told the graduates. “I am so very proud of you for doing so, and excited about what you now know about yourselves and what you can accomplish in the future — truly anything.”
The May 15 ceremony in Cameron Indoor Stadium honored 251 JD graduates, 23 of whom also earned a Master of Laws, or LLM, in international and comparative law, and seven of whom also received an LLM in law and entrepreneurship. Eight earned graduate degrees from other departments and schools at Duke University in addition to their JDs, and 30 JD graduates also received the Public Interest and Public Service Law certificate.
Twenty-one graduates of law schools in other countries, representing 14 nations, received the LLM degree, and eight of those graduates received the Law School’s certificate in business law. Three graduates earned the Doctor of Juridical Science or SJD, the highest degree in law.
Newman: Small acts collectively matter
Newman, a beloved member of the Duke Law community for more than 30 years, recalled how she entered Duke Law feeling like an outsider, as the oldest member of her class, the parent of two small children, and a first-generation college student. While at first she felt unlikely to succeed, the “warmth, generosity, and cooperative spirit” she found in the Duke Law community changed her thinking,
“Without hope, we are not inspired to take action, and without action, change will not occur. You have done that here, identifying areas of need, imagining possible solutions, and taking action.”— Professor Theresa Newman ’88
“Over the years since, I have witnessed and experienced other acts at Duke — grand and small — that have shaped me but, more important, have left me more hopeful about the state of things larger than myself. Individually and collectively, these acts have provided evidence that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
After graduating with her JD, Newman would go on to a federal clerkship and a civil litigation practice in Raleigh before returning to Duke in 1990 where, among other roles, she served as editor and advisor for student journals, director of legal writing, and associate dean for academic affairs.
But she is best known as a leader in the national innocence movement. In 2008 Newman established, along with John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law James Coleman, Jr., the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which has helped to exonerate 10 men of crimes they did not commit. She served as associate director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility and faculty advisor to Duke’s chapter of the Innocence Project, which she and Coleman also helped establish, and was a founding board member of the international Innocence Network as well as a leader in numerous North Carolina justice organizations. (Read more.)
During her address, Newman gave examples of compassion and selflessness she had witnessed during her representation of the wrongly convicted, from a judge who apologized to an exoneree to a client’s refusal to plead guilty, knowing that to do so would allow state misconduct to continue unscrutinized.
And she said that the graduates had risen to the exceptional challenges presented by the pandemic, not only by performing selfless, compassionate acts within the Law School, but also through service ranging from fostering animals, tutoring children, and serving food to the needy to campaigning, protesting, and voting.
“Without hope, we are not inspired to take action, and without action, change will not occur. You have done that here, identifying areas of need, imagining possible solutions, and taking action.”
Newman said she knew the graduates would “join hope and action, and move forward with optimism. I am humbled — and inspired — by how much good you have done during your short time here.”
Student speakers praise their classmates’ resilience
LLM class speaker Taisa Brandao Condino, a corporate lawyer from Sao Paolo, Brazil, commended her “brave and resilient” classmates for choosing to begin their studies amid the uncertainties of a global pandemic. Recalling long conversations on WhatsApp, she said the group’s main question was whether they would have a full LLM experience.
And despite classes that were mostly online, limited interaction in person, the oceans separating some students studying in their home countries, and some initial hiccups with technology, they did, she said. “We had the opportunity to share different views, question many things, deconstruct ideas, and reframe concepts. More than engaging as students, we had the opportunity to become friends. We made our different cultures become one Blue Devil family.”
Condino urged her classmates to use their power as lawyers for good. “Never forget who you are and what you stand for,” she said. “Be part of a positive change and help build a world guided in love, respect, and care for each other and the environment.”
JD class speaker Garmai Gorlorwulu, a leader in numerous student groups who was honored with a Forever Duke alumni award, acknowledged the difficulties many of her classmates had overcome to graduate. Sharing that her own father had died of cancer last fall, she spoke of how the community had often unknowingly helped her through her grief.
“Little did many of you know, I was leaning on you all, every day, without many of you fully understanding the gravity of your actions,” she said.
Gorlorwulu praised her classmates, whose in-person studies were disrupted by the pandemic during the spring of their second year, for showing up in ways large and small: from serving clients through clinic and pro bono work to sharing notes and checking in with each other over coffee. Those actions, she said, maintained the community during a singular time.
“Though we have spent the past few years pushing ourselves to be better each day, Class of 2021, please never forget that each of you is more than the sum of your parts. The world needs you to be who you are, authentically and humbly yourself.
“As I have heard many others say, and as I have said many times in my three years in this community: You are enough.”
Abrams: Preserve institutions while making law more just
Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean and professor of law, reminded the JD graduates that she began at Duke Law at the same time they did.
“We had no idea on that beautiful August morning what was in store for us over the next three years,” she said. “But despite all of the challenges, or, perhaps, because of the challenges we experienced, we have both grown in our respective roles, and it has been a thrill for me to see how far you have come.”
She commended the international LLM graduates for “toughness and resolve” in completing their studies in the face of challenges presented by the COVID pandemic, and said it had both revealed many difficult global challenges and demonstrated the need for lawyers to use their “superpowers” of persuasion, problem-solving, and empathy to help solve those problems.
“You have experienced many of these challenges yourselves, from the devastation and disruption of COVID-19 to the grief and pain of a new racial reckoning,” Abrams told the graduates. “But what you have been through during your time at Duke has made you more thoughtful, more mature, and more empathetic. It will make you better lawyers.”
She reminded them that lawyers are critical to protecting the rule of law and legal institutions required for democracy to flourish: “The world needs lawyers who can simultaneously preserve and protect the institutions that make us strong while creating the changes needed to make our society more just.”