Ogletree’s admonition: “opportunity breeds responsibility”



Jesse Climenko Professor of Law Charles Ogletree ’78 addressed members of the Class of 2009 in a lecture entitled “Why is Senator Jim Webb Pushing a Criminal Justice Agenda,” in Ames Courtroom on Tuesday, April 14. The title of Ogletree’s address was slightly misleading, as the Professor provided general remarks to 3L’s about their opportunities and obligations as Harvard Law School graduates. The event was sponsored by the Class of 2009 Marshals and the Dean of Students Office.

Ogletree, who also serves as the Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, noted that while “it is a very tough and challenging time,” for graduates given the unprecedented job losses suffered by the legal community in recent months, many opportunities remained opened to HLS grads.

These opportunities, Ogletree declared, create a “responsibility to serve in whatever capacity you are in, whether you work in a firm, public-interest, or outside the law.”

The professor joked that when Barack Obama ’91 asked him whether Obama could actually give up a Supreme Court clerkship or a six-figure firm salary to be a community organizer in Chicago, Ogletree told the then-President of the Harvard Law Review, “Yes you can.” Ogletree quipped, “I have not heard Barack give me credit for his most famous slogan.”

Ogletree fondly recalled his own career choices after graduation, stating said that he chose the D.C. public defender over a firm job in California despite the pay decrease from $18,000 to $15,000. He elicited laughter from the crowd when he recalled his mother’s reaction to his decision to become a public defender instead of returning to firm work in his native California. “You’re gonna defend the public against all those rapists and murderers, she said, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.”

While Ogletree lauded 2009 as a year of celebrations in American race relations-from the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, to the 80th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, to the inauguration of the first African-American President-he cautioned that race and class bias continues to permeate society in conscious and subconscious ways. For example, Ogletree compared two press reports from Katrina, one of which described a black man carrying food as having “looted” a store, while another article described white New Orleans’ residents of New Orleans as having “found” food and soda at a local grocery store.

Coinciding with the title of his address, Ogletree lauded the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, recently proposed by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), as an example of what public leaders can do when they place principle above politics. The Act offers policy suggestions for refocusing incarceration policies to reduce the incarceration rate while preserving public safety, decreasing prison violence, improving prison administration, establishing meaningful re-entry programs, reforming the nation’s drug laws, and improving treatment of the mentally ill.

Ogletree offered another example of a man for whom principle preceded politics: Thurgood Marshall. When the University of Maryland law school rejected Marshall because of the color of his skin, Marshall “didn’t get angry,” Ogletree said, “He got even.” Marshall graduated first in his class from Howard Law School under the tutelage of Dean Charles Hamilton Houston and subsequently brought a successful suit against Maryland, forcing the state to integrate its law school (Pearson v. Murray, 169 Md. 478 (Md. 1936)).

In describing the opportunity available to law students, Ogletree cited Marshall, who, in a 1992 speech that would be one of his final public addresses, stated, “Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side. We should have liberty for all.”

For those skeptical about whether they have the intellectual skill or courage of a Webb or Marshall, Ogletree offered these reassuring words, “As you think about your own careers, you don’t have to be a certain type of person with a certain type of style to make a big difference in society. We have the doors and the keys to open up freedom and equality for those on the other side.”

In the question and answer period that followed his remarks, Ogletree said he approved of the culture change at the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder. “This is not a liberal or progressive DOJ-it will still use the tools to enforce the law. But it will not have the same condescension.”

Closer to HLS, Ogletree remarked that the school is not doing enough to connect students with its enormous alumni base. “There is a disconnect between encouraging you to be involved as an alumni and going after you for money…HLS has the largest alumni association related to law in the world. I have not travelled to a country without running into alumni. That is a very valuable resource.”

Ogletree closed by telling students not to worry if they changed jobs five or ten times early in their legal careers. He declared, “The profession will create exciting opportunities that you never considered before.”

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