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Supreme Words of Wisdom

Justice John Paul Stevens passes along advice to 151st class of law school graduates

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May 17, 2011 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso
Produced by Matt Paolelli
CHICAGO --- U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ return to his alma mater to deliver the Northwestern University School of Law convocation address May 13 at the Chicago Theatre had special significance for Stevens as well as for the Northwestern community.

Stevens, who received his J.D. magna cum laude from Northwestern Law, missed his own convocation in 1947. He was allowed to miss his final exam for federal taxation, the only course he took his last term, to leave Chicago early to begin his law clerkship in Washington, D.C.

“I mention this history so that you will excuse any mistakes that you have found in my opinions in tax cases as well as deficiencies in this commencement address,” joked Justice Stevens.

Stevens delivered his address in the historic auditorium, where the 2011 Northwestern Law graduates, donned in their purple gowns, had posed for pictures with family and friends under the marquee before proceeding to their places in the theatre. 

The justice offered the graduates three pieces of advice:

  • “Be sure to include a significant amount of unpaid work in your professional career. You will not only receive unexpected intangible rewards from such work, but also learn important lessons not taught in any law school course.”
  • Every lawyer should adopt a unique practice that potential clients would recognize -- advice Justice Stevens said he received from a Northwestern Law professor. “I started using my middle name when signing letters. I don’t know whether that practice got me any law business but it did make my signature even more illegible than before.”
  • “Remember that your most valuable asset as a member of the legal profession is your integrity. If your adversaries and colleagues know that your word is good, you will be a successful lawyer.”

The law school convocation concluded Justice Stevens’ two-day visit to the law school. The day before an academic symposium and a celebratory dinner were held in his honor. Justice Stevens also participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by law school alumni Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin and Kate Shaw of the White House Counsel’s Office.

The School of Law’s 151st class of graduates, who will join an esteemed network of 12,000 living alumni, already seemed to be heeding Justice Stevens’ first piece of advice. Interim dean Kim Yuracko announced that they had logged 22,000 public service hours, the most of any graduating law school class. 

The more than 500 graduates of the law school received the following degrees:

JD; JD-MBA; Master of Law & Certification in Business Administration; Master of Laws (LLM); Master of Laws in International Human Rights; Master of Laws (Executive LLM in Madrid); Masters of Laws (Executive LLM in Seoul); Master of Laws (Executive LLM in Tel Aviv); Masters of Laws in Tax (LLM Tax); Master of Studies in Law; and Master of Studies in Law in International Human Rights.