BY MARITZA REYES
Some of my fellow LL.M. students have asked me to share my sentiments about our experiences at Harvard Law School. I am honored by their request and humbly comply. This is not a good-bye essay but an “until we meet again” message. First and foremost, I congratulate the LL.M. class of 2008 and our families for reaching this professional milestone. We share in this accomplishment with our loved ones who cheered us from afar or traveled to be here with us. We thank them for their patience, love, and encouragement. We also thank those members of the faculty and staff at HLS who went above and beyond their job responsibilities to make us feel welcomed. Thank you for the professional and respectful treatment that you provided to each of us. We also convey our appreciation to the J.D.s who demonstrated genuine interest in our perspectives and diverse backgrounds. Last but not least, cheers to the S.J.D.s who helped us to understand “the ways” of Harvard Law and the Graduate Program.
When we arrived here less than a year ago, we were a group of lawyers from all confines of the world. In a class as large as the Harvard LL.M. class we have managed to identify colleagues whom we now call friends. It is our experiences as students at Harvard Law that bind us together. Our LL.M. class includes academics, judges, prosecutors, defenders, human rights activists, government lawyers, associates, partners, and recent graduates. But when we arrived here, we each adopted new, shared identities-as students trying to figure out the system. We needed the most basic information, like what are Lewis, Pound, and Langdell? Where are Holmes, Ames, and North Hall? These names have now become ingrained in our memories. Orientation week helped us to break the ice, begin to get to know each other, and have a little fun together before starting classes. For most of us, the end of orientation week meant that the partying stopped and the real work began.
The LL.M. academic year at Harvard is one of those once in a lifetime events that many hope to achieve but few are able to obtain. It is an intense and demanding endeavor. It is also a great opportunity to experience a different academic environment and learn from prominent faculty as well as from fellow students. Certainly, those who embraced the multi-racial and multi-cultural interactions learned as much about the laws of other countries as about the world, first-hand. Yes, when we look around our LL.M. class and the different groups of students, it becomes easier to understand the world we live in. It is a world where people are connecting with each other through the internet regardless of geographic distance. But it is also a world where people suffer from poverty, hunger, war, racism, exploitation, and oppression.
As attorneys, we have an important role to play in some of the societal challenges of each of our countries because we know the law and how to use it. It is this knowledge that places us in a position to influence the lives of our fellow citizens, governments, the legal profession, and society in general. We have been trained to present the facts of any given case or problem in the light that best suits our cause. We are masters in the use of language, analogies, interpretation, theories, persuasion, and pragmatism. We can choose to use our skills for purely personal advancement. However, I hope that most of us also will consider it a duty to contribute in the fight against human suffering and injustice. We can do this in different ways, including activism, legislative initiatives, volunteering, fundraising, writings, advocacy, or by simply speaking up for those who do not have a voice or the courage or freedom to raise it.
In our personal and professional endeavors, we should be able to judge, for the most part, right from wrong and act accordingly. At times, this may mean that we cannot pursue a cause or make allegations to a tribunal that we know we have no basis in fact or law to plead or assert. Each of us must make this decision based on our own convictions, principles, and knowledge of the law and ethics rules. We should not become so arrogant about our professional standing, advocacy, and skills that we mislead, lie, or withhold evidence just because we can. These are merely professional responsibilities. But adherence to these basic rules has the potential to improve, even slightly, the negative perception of lawyers that is shared by citizens around the world (as confirmed through our conversations).
Beyond adherence to principles of professionalism, our contributions as attorneys may include speaking out against injustice even if we know that we may suffer personally and professionally. A just cause may be unpopular or at odds with the interests of those in positions of power. Our ethical duty may also require that we refuse to assist in perpetuating a status quo that tramples on the rights and dignities of fellow human beings. Or, it may simply mean, at a minimum, refusing to participate in conversations in which discriminatory or disparaging comments based on race, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation are uttered. The pressures to conform may be great and our characters will undoubtedly be tested. But these are opportunities to further self-respect, human dignity, professionalism, ethics, and the rule of law.
Indeed, if we take our oaths to heart, we have an awesome burden to carry. But we have chosen this profession. It was not forced upon us and we may decide to walk away if it becomes too unbearable. I am hopeful, though, that we can learn to balance the awesome responsibility placed upon us with the rewards of professional fulfillment and a life well lived. To find this balance, let us pursue personal connections beyond Facebook and e-mail. Let us nurture and recognize our own humanity. Let us feed our spirit and look for a higher meaning and faith in our lives. Let us reach for happiness and passion inside and outside the practice of law!
And, now, I say to you, go into the world, celebrate, enjoy, contribute, make use of this hard-earned Harvard degree, and reach for your highest potential. But before we leave, after finals and papers are over, let us enjoy the company of friends and have a great time.
Congratulations LL.M. Class of 2008!
Maritza Reyes is a LL.M. student.