Vanita Gupta ’01 and Francis Daniels LLM ’86, ’87 address class of 2016 at Convocation

Graduating students and their families gathered at the Beacon Theatre on May 19 to celebrate NYU Law’s 2016 Convocation and to hear from a variety of speakers, including Dean Trevor Morrison; Vanita Gupta ’01, head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, who spoke at the morning JD ceremony; and Francis Daniels LLM ’86, ’87, co-founder of Africa Opportunity Partners, who addressed the afternoon LLM/JSD ceremony.

“The ability, or at least the willingness, to think critically and to engage deeply with ideas is, unfortunately, in rather short supply today,” Morrison said, offering graduating students the advice of Judge Learned Hand: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right.”

“Never rest on your intellectual laurels,” Morrison said. “Don’t become stagnant. Remember that questioning is learning. And remember that each of you has a valuable skill: the ability to bring people together toward shared goals.”

The JD class speaker, Georgia Stasinopoulos ’16, shared her experience of how the NYU Law community came together for her, reminding fellow graduates of what makes the Law School stand out from its peers. NYU Law, she said, is “#SmartWithHeart.” The members of the class of 2016 fully embody this concept as they embark on their careers, Stasinopoulos said, whether they are defending immigrants from deportation, working to close the wage gap, or making a difference in other ways.

For her, the idea was even more personal. “I experienced firsthand what #SmartWithHeart means,” said Stasinopoulos, whose mother passed away a few months before graduation after battling cancer. Faced with this loss, Stasinopoulos recalled how NYU Law professors, administrators, and students all rallied to support her in her time of need: “Please know that all of you made it possible for me to graduate.”

In her keynote address, Gupta focused on how lawyers can use their skills to help build a better society. “In too many communities across America today, we see a dramatic gap between what our laws guarantee, on the one hand, and what people experience, on the other,” Gupta said, noting particularly the gaps that exist in voting rights, access to education, interactions with the police, and LGBT rights. She told the graduating students that, as lawyers, they will have the power to close those gaps. “If you lead with courage, if you work with purpose, and if you act with kindness and compassion, I know you will change this profession and our country for the better.”

Pondering how LLM studies pack much learning into a compressed time span, Evangelia Andronikou LLM ’16, the speaker for her class, likened this interval to the five-year period during which a new Chinese bamboo plant needs diligent nurturing until, in a six-week period, it shoots up to 90 feet tall. Her classmates had similarly worked long and hard, and were about to flourish, she said. “We networked, grew, added to the experiences we had, and now we’re ready to break through the ground.”

Francis Daniels LLM ’86, ’87, a Ghanaian with law degrees from schools in Ghana, Canada, and the US, suggested what that growth might mean. Now the co-founder of Africa Opportunity Partners and manager of its subsidiary Anibok Investment Research Chambers in South Africa, he reflected that an early setback—being laid off from his first job after law school—had forced him to reevaluate his relationship with risk and spurred his decision to start investing as a hobby.

“Errors and losses are humbling, humanizing, and, above all, instructive,” he said. On his way to becoming a full-time investor, Daniels encountered situations that, though they seemed far removed from his experiences in NYU Law classrooms, he could resolve by drawing on lessons from the Law School. During the Ivorian crisis spurred by Laurent Gbagbo’s illegitimate grab for the presidency, for example, Daniels stayed the course and waited for Gbagbo to fall. “In so doing, our clients were electing, quietly, to stand in solidarity with the victims of a brazen electoral fraud.”

To graduating students, he said, “Never forget your inchoate missions or dreams at this time of graduation. Realizing a fraction of them may be by routes circuitous and meandering. They give an arc, purpose, and passion to your career.”

Before the hooding commenced, Isabela Garcez ’16 and Maximilian Viski-Hanka LLM ’16 each presented the Class of 2016 Gift at their respective ceremonies. This year, more than 170 JD and LLM students, including 26 new Weinfeld Fellows, came together to give more than $115,000 to the Law School.

At NYU’s 184th Commencement Exercises the day before Convocation, keynote speaker Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, challenged the roughly 8,000 graduates gathered in Yankee Stadium to embrace the responsibility that comes with their positions of privilege and to stand for something. “Never stop asking yourself the question: ‘What might I achieve that goes beyond myself? How will my life serve the cause of justice?’” he said.

Walker, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws, rose from a decade of prominence in corporate law at Cleary Gottlieb to become a leader in philanthropy, taking the reins at the Rockefeller Foundation before doing the same at the Ford Foundation. Margaret Marshall, the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the author of the groundbreaking 2003 opinion legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, also received an honorary law doctorate.

Posted May 23, 2016