Sherrilyn Ifill '87 exhorts the Class of 2014 to infuse civil rights work into their careers

Reflecting on the significant anniversaries of major civil rights victories, Sherrilyn Ifill '87 gave a stirring speech exhorting graduating JD and LLM students to join her in "perfecting this democracy." Ifill, president and director-council of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, capped a festive celebration of academic achievement that included bagpipes and speeches by Dean Trevor Morrison, Board Chairman Anthony Welters '77, NYU President John Sexton,  and graduands David Leapheart ’14 and Stephanie Chu LLM '14.

Dean Trevor MorrisonMorrison, addressing the first class to graduate under his deanship, discussed the role that the leaderships skills taught at NYU Law will play in the legal careers of the graduating students. Leadership is not simply a quality that comes with a particular job title or responsibility, Morrison said. Rather, “leadership is a choice. It’s about how you choose to act and what you choose to do.”

The best leaders that he has known, Morrison said, have known how to truly listen, have been willing to take risks and fail, and are always striving to do better. “A good leader is always dissatisfied,” said Morrison. “There is always a gap between what exists today and what could exist in the future.”

David Leapheart '14Leapheart is a prime example of such leadership, having earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps before entering law school. In his JD graduate address, Leapheart asked his fellow classmates to consider the rooms that they are leaving behind at NYU Law. Not, he said, the physical classrooms, but rather the way students and faculty interacted in those spaces.

Leapheart challenged his classmates, as they embark on their legal careers, to bring with them the intellectual curiosity, spirited debate, and mutual respect that pervades the spaces at NYU Law. “Think on this place often. And no matter what rooms you land in out there, infuse them with the spirit that defines NYU Law,” said Leapheart. “Can you imagine if we were as bold in the real world as we have been here?”

Stephanie Chu '14Chu, prior to coming to New York for her LLM degree, was admitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria and High Court of Australia, and practiced in banking and finance law. In her LLM graduate speech, she recalled the daunting task of her initial application to the program, and encouraged her classmates to reflect on their original purpose in pursuing a second legal degree, whether it was to build on existing legal experience, to understand the law from a different perspective, or develop expertise in a new area of law.  

“Whatever our motivations, we are among the fortunate for whom the doors of higher education have opened,” said Chu “Let’s use the knowledge, confidence, and friendships from this year to refine, or redefine, our goals.”

Sherrilyn Ifill '87Ifill, the final and keynote speaker, gave a rousing address that urged every lawyer to find a way to be a civil rights lawyer no matter their chosen career paths.

She noted that 2014 is a year filled with historical significance and anniversaries, including the 50th anniversary of the civil rights act, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. "What that means for us sitting here today, in all of our diversity, in all of our cosmopolitan sophistication, what that means is that this country as you and I have been privileged to know it, is less than 60 years old,” Ifill said.

America is still “relatively new at this thing called equality,” Ifill said, and there is immense ground to cover in terms of improving civil rights, from securing voting rights, to addressing mass incarceration, to closing the ever-increasing income gap. Therefore, Ifill said to the graduating class: "I cannot release from your obligation to engage in the work of perfecting this democracy."

“You are called to be a civil rights lawyer. Because civil rights work is the work of democracy maintenance. It is not work to be done only by black lawyers, or women lawyers or gay lawyers or even those of use who have committed ourselves to this practice full time,” Ifill said. “It is every lawyer’s obligation to engage in the hard, but necessary work of democracy maintenance.”

For the women graduating, Ifill also had a particular message: "Women, I shouldn’t have to address special remarks to you, but I feel compelled to do so…. I advise against listening to advice on how to “do” womanhood," Ifill said, whether that advice is to "lean in," "thrive," "be confident," or any number of the other imperatives addressed towards woman. "Just do you," she said. "You’re a woman. You’re going to be criticized no matter what course you take."

But Ifill asked all of the graduates, men and women, JDs and LLMs, to join her in the work of building and maintaining democracy. “My hope for all of you today is that you will become my partners – my colleagues in civil rights work. That you will infuse your practice in whatever field it might be, with the ethic of equality and of opportunity,” Ifill said. “That you will join that overflowing roster of NYU Law graduates who are recognized for their innovation, commitment, and leadership in making this great, but flawed democracy, better.”

Watch Ifill's speech (18 min.):

Posted May 23, 2014