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To the Boston College Law School
Entering Class
Newton, Massachusetts,
August 31, 2004

I am delighted to be here with you, and to be in a room full of so much energy. And you should be energetic: today you launch your professional career, and begin the important next phase of your life’s journey.

I remember how I felt at my law school graduation here thirty-two years ago, where you will be in three short years. And I remember how anxious I was about the next stage of my life, knowing that I loved the law, but not sure where it would lead me. I remember that worry, and I imagine that some of you feel it now. But standing here on this side of the lectern I see things a bit differently. In this room I see the hope, and the promise, and the joy, of the future.

You have reasons to be joyful. You are now part of a profession that, depending on the choices you make, can give you great fulfillment and satisfaction. Without a doubt, you will be in a position to influence the lives of countless people, and the direction of your country.

During your professional career you will work on hundreds of cases. They will earn money for you. For some of you, a great deal of money. And that will give you a certain power and freedom. But if affluence and power are all you seek, and all you gain, I believe that you will not find much joy in our profession.

Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J., was Dean of this law school when I attended. Over the years he has been a close friend, trusted adviser, and inspiration to me. Three weeks ago he was presented the ABA’s highest award, the ABA Medal, given for a lifetime of dedication to public service. During his career Father Drinan has served as a law school professor, Dean, author, Congressman, diplomat, legal scholar, international human rights activist, and respected ABA leader. He has always viewed the law as an engine for social justice, and he is for me the embodiment of the lawyer as public servant.

In his eloquent acceptance remarks Father Drinan reminded the hundreds of lawyers from throughout America in the audience that the lawyer’s noble mission was defined 1700 years before Christ, in the opening paragraph of the first written code of the law in the world, written by Hammurabi: “the purpose of the law is to protect the powerless from the powerful.”

I believe that the purpose of being a lawyer today – almost 4000 years after Hammurabi’s code – continues to be protecting the powerless from the powerful. The joy of being a lawyer comes from using your legal training to help human beings in need, and to help improve society for the benefit of all, regardless of their economic or social status. The joy comes from doing well, but also doing good.

As you heard in Dean Garvey’s introduction, I became president-elect of the world’s largest professional organization, the American Bar Association, at our annual meeting three weeks ago in Atlanta. The ABA is comprised of more than 405,000 lawyers, judges and associate members from all across the country and around the world.

We represent all aspects of the legal profession: business and trial lawyers, prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges, law professors and law students. And we have a responsibility – one that we take very seriously – to uphold the rule of law and insure the fair administration of justice. The ABA’s motto is “Defending Liberty and Pursuing Justice.”

The ABA was formed in 1878 in by 100 lawyers from 21 states who saw the need for a national bar association that would serve as the voice of the profession, and that would establish standards for legal education, lawyer and judicial codes of ethics, and promote public service.

Today, the stated mission of the ABA is “to be the national representative of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the law.” Goal X of the ABA specifically is to “preserve and enhance the ideals of the legal profession … and its dedication to public service.”

Let me step back for a moment and tell you a little about my own journey.

I was born in Europe, came to this country at the age of seven from a small village in southern Italy, and grew up in a village in Illinois, near my mother’s birthplace, where I received an excellent public school education. After graduating from high school, I attended Princeton University on an academic scholarship. After Princeton, I was a high school English teacher for several enjoyable years, including two years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and then came to Boston thirty-five years ago, to this great law school, for my legal education. Following a clerkship on the 2d Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, and a Fellowship in Italy at the University of Florence Law School, I have practiced and lived in Boston ever since.

I became a trial lawyer 32 years ago, spending the first 30 years with the outstanding, former Boston firm of Hill & Barlow, and now with the great firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart --- firms that I joined not only because of their commitment to excellence, but because of their commitment to public service.

I tell you these things for a reason: because as someone born in Europe, as an immigrant to this country, I know first-hand the true meaning of that eloquent promise, “equal opportunity for all in America”, and I have deeply cherished the opportunities for growth and freedom that I’ve been afforded.

From personal experience, I can tell you how important it is that every young person in America be given the opportunity to work hard, to develop his or her abilities, and to contribute to this great nation. And as a lawyer I will continue to do—and I ask you to join me in doing – everything possible to help ensure that the promise of “equal opportunity for all” is a promise kept, for everyone in America, regardless of color, gender, race, national origin, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.

I love and respect our profession. I have found great joy and satisfaction in being a trial lawyer. The true joy has come from the sense of fulfillment that I’ve had from representing those who cannot protect themselves, and from taking on just causes.

The first pro bono case I worked on at Hill & Barlow as a first-year associate was a class action lawsuit brought against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on behalf of hundreds of mentally retarded young people living in substandard, and even inhumane, conditions in state-operated institutions. I came to know many of those young people, and their families, and to feel their suffering.

It took many years to conclude that case, but the result was substantial. In the end the Commonwealth entered into a consent decree requiring it to expend millions of dollars to vastly upgrade the living conditions in those institutions, and to provide a higher standard of care and attention to the residents.

The result gave all of us on the legal team the great feeling that we had positively influenced many lives – that we had helped people who were powerless to protect themselves. For me that was the first of numerous public interest causes that I have been involved with during the past thirty-two years. Those cases have been an important counterbalance in my very busy trial practice on behalf of paying clients of the firm.

Three years from now, you will raise your hand and take the lawyer’s oath. The oath includes:

  • Undertaking representation of the oppressed, the defenseless, the dis-empowered and the just cause, without regard for considerations personal to yourself; and
  • Upholding the rule of law.

I say to you today, and I ask you never to forget, that public service is a vital part of your career in the legal profession. Public service is what defines the lawyer’s role in society, and what sets us apart from every other profession.

You and I are fortunate, because being a lawyer is not just a job. It is a noble calling, a way of life. To know the law is to understand how to make our communities, our country and our world better through its proper application. To practice law properly is to engage in public service of the highest order.

President Woodrow Wilson reminded us that there is “No higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”
But let me share with you what a young graduate of George Washington University National Law Center wrote recently about the mindset today on the part of many in our law schools, and bear with me because the quote is a bit long:

Throughout history, ‘lawyers’ have not solely been mouthpieces who stand up in court and argue for anyone who will pay them to do so. Lawyers have been writers and politicians, entrepreneurs and activists, teachers and parents. Yet we do not learn about these lawyers’ lives in law school. In law school, we learn that in order to be worthwhile, we have to try to make it into the biggest, highest paying, and most ‘prestigious’ firm that will take us. To do anything else is to fail. We buy into this myth and structure our lives around it. In doing this, we perpetuate the public image of lawyers as money-hungry slobs. We fail to serve those who need our bright minds. Most importantly we betray ourselves, our true dreams, talents, and interests.

I believe it is time that we change that mindset, and that we rekindle, and nourish, and preserve, and celebrate, the idealism that leads us to choose law as a career.

During the coming year I will be planning the initiatives and programs that I will seek to implement as ABA President a year from now. My major initiative, which I believe is now the most pressing priority for our profession, particularly for the young lawyers of America, is what I call a “renaissance of idealism” in our profession.

You may find several years from now, as other recent law school graduates have found, that law firm demands on your time and economic pressures may make it difficult for you to engage in public service. If that comes to pass I want you to recall what I say to you today: the lawyer who contributes to the public good is a fulfilled, complete lawyer, and one who is truly a “professional.”

A healthy society is made up of people who care about fellow human beings, and about the future, who contribute to society’s development for the common good, who reject the “me” culture in favor of President John F. Kennedy’s “…ask what you can do for your country” philosophy. As lawyers, we are in a better position than anyone else to do just that.

Lawyers are in a position—especially in this challenging post-9/11 era—to protect the ideals that have defined America to the freedom-loving nations of the world. Lawyers are the true guardians of the Bill of Rights, and of civil liberties, and the American people look to us to protect their constitutional rights. If we do not do so, no one else will.

It is the lawyer who can make the world a better place. And so we bear a heavy responsibility to the people, and to our nation. That responsibility to the public, and to the administration of justice in America, is at the heart of the oath that we take as lawyers.

Just last year the American Film Institute published a list of the 100 greatest movie heroes of all time. The list included many of the usual suspects, action heroes portrayed by Arnold Schwarznegger and Bruce Willis. But the number one movie hero of all time was Atticus Finch, the dedicated and noble lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, the greatest hero of all time in film is a lawyer. Atticus Finch – the lawyer as public servant.

I believe that public service, which can take many different forms – from representing a pro bono indigent client to service on a non-profit or community board --offers the possibility of making each of us a better lawyer as well as a better person. By offering our time and talent to an organization or to an individual whose path we may not regularly cross, we not only improve our legal skills, but more importantly, we expand our own horizons.

We all know of great lawyers who were public servants on a grand scale: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and the list goes on.

But, think of those great lawyers about whom we don’t often hear. For example,

  • lawyers who are public officials, and who, through considerable risk and sacrifice, have changed the world;
  • labor and union lawyers who won victories for workers in this country; and
  • the tens of thousands of lawyers who work every day, every hour, in every community in America, without recognition or fanfare as they protect those in society who are most in need.

Yes, it is more difficult today for lawyers to find time to engage in public service than it was when I became a lawyer. Requirements for billable hours in law offices have increased, and so has the debt that now heavily burdens law school graduates. These are pressing issues that we must address, and that I intend to address as President of the American Bar Association.

Those of us in a position of influence -- such as the leaders of the bar, of universities, law schools, and business – will help me make the case – as we can and must do – to all legal employers, and to solo and small firm practitioners throughout the country, that we need to change the way we now practice law, for the greater fulfillment of lawyers, for the good of the profession, and for the benefit of the American people.

With the help of those respected leaders throughout society, we will set forth the compelling reasons, including reasons that are in the law firms’ own interest, as to why time must be freed up for lawyers who want to engage in public service while they pursue careers at their firms. And we must provide financial relief to new law school graduates who want to pursue a career of service in the public sector but who face prohibitively heavy educational loan obligations.

I will appoint an ABA Commission to consider these issues, and to develop practical solutions that can be implemented in our law offices, businesses, universities and law schools. This is a dialogue that all of us must engage in.

I believe firmly that the health, and the future, of our profession depend on reinvigorating, nourishing and preserving the role of the lawyer as public servant in society.

I hope that in time you will be part of the renaissance of idealism in our profession that I will ask the ABA and its 405,000 members, particularly the young lawyers, to lead.

Meanwhile, as you embark on your wonderful journey, I ask that you never abandon your idealism. Reach out with your legal skills to those who are less fortunate. Help them. Protect them. Never forget why you became a lawyer. Your career, your development as a human being, and our country depend on it.

I conclude with these concrete suggestions:

  • Check out and join the ABA Law Student Division by visiting the ABA website – abanet.org -- and get involved in ABA policy-making on issues that have a direct impact on you, such as our law student loan forgiveness program.
  • Participate in the work of a legal aid clinic during your law school years.
  • Consider public service employment next summer.
  • And, most important: during the next three years work hard, but also find time to enjoy yourself.

    I welcome you to our profession. I hope very much that as a lawyer you will do well – and, equally important, that you will do good.

You have my best wishes.

Michael Greco


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