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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Commencement Speech, New York University Law School
New York, May 14, 1999

Blue Bar

The Wisdom Inside You

Dean Sexton, Faculty, Honored Guests, Graduates:

You honor me by inviting me to speak here on this glorious day. It is no secret that I have always loved NYU Law School and the irrepressible John Sexton. John is so exuberant, at times, he almost seems Korean! I will never forget the day 18 years ago when John and I drove to Albany together to get admitted to the New York bar. John was so excited about his new job teaching here at NYU that while driving, he kept turning to me, gesticulating wildly with both hands. Terrified, I screamed, "John, how are you controlling the car?" He answered, "Don't worry! I'm driving with my knee!" When he saw my look, he added, "I used to commute down the East Side Highway in a stick shift car, while eating a steak dinner!"

Since I went from the Ivory Tower to Foggy Bottom just 6 months ago, I have traveled from Kosovo to Beijing, from Geneva to Jakarta, from Belgrade to Bogota. As I visited the refugee camps in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) last month, it occurred to me that this might be the first spring in 15 years that I would not attend a graduation. The contrast between the intense despair I saw in those camps, and the unmitigated joy that I see here today, reminds me once again how diverse the range of human experience can be.

Today's ceremony reminds me again just how special graduations are. Although you will experience many rites of passage in the years ahead--when you pass the bar, when you argue your first case, when you do your first deal-- s time goes by, you will realize how few moments we save for genuine celebration. At millennium's end, we have our own special "Y2K problem:" we do not reserve enough time in our busy lives to stop and take stock of where we are and where we've been. Through ceremonies like this, we all steal time from the everyday to reflect on what we've accomplished and on what lies ahead.

To you, the parents and families of the graduating class, let me offer my first and fondest congratulations. As the father of two, with years of tuition payments still stretching ahead, I can almost taste the bittersweet exhilaration you must feel today. As you mark the end of your children's schooling, it must seem like yesterday that you first took them to school. Back then, you must have wondered if this day would ever come, and maybe, just maybe, you hoped that time wouldn't fly so fast.

To you, the faculty, these ceremonies mark the seasonal rhythms of our professional life. Congratulations on another class well-graduated, another year well-done, and the joy of welcoming your students as your peers and future teachers.

But my greatest congratulations go to you, the class of '99, the last class to graduate from NYU law school in this millennium. Today marks the end of your legal schooling. But here's the catch: your legal education is just beginning: for many of you, next week, when--after you view Episode I--The Phantom Menace--you begin bar review courses under the instruction of VCRs across America. The bitter truth is that you are no longer law students, but you are not yet lawyers. And so your legal education will continue, as you move from job to job and place to place.

As you start that journey, what should you know? Let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me as I sat in my law school cap and gown, almost two decades ago. As always, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that in the next few years, your anxiety level will drop. Although you finally hold your diploma, right now you secretly fear that you know nothing about the law. And you're certainly right. But once you get over that fear, and start your next professional experience, you'll find that what you don't know doesn't matter. You know plenty. In these last few years you have learned a lot about law, and a lot more about life than about law. You're smart, you'll work hard, and you'll learn fast. During the next few years, you will be thrown into many sink-or-swim situations, and you will swim. Within a few years you'll be an expert on something: corporate transactions, legal aid, legislative drafting, or God bless you, International Human Rights. Until now, you've had everything but knowledge that only experience can bring--call it savvy, call it judgment --you don't have it yet, but sooner than you'd dream, you'll have that too.

That doesn't mean that there won't be days of panic; days when you'll wish you had chosen another profession. I can assure you that at least once during the next few years, you'll make a terrible mistake, the bottom of your stomach will fall out, and you'll decide your career is in shambles. But the next day, against all odds, the sun will rise, you will go to work, and you'll find that your error was not so serious after all. Then the phone will ring, and you will answer your client's concerns with intelligence and sensitivity, and when you hang up, you will feel that renewed confidence that comes from believing in yourself. That's the good news.

The bad news is that as your anxiety level declines, your responsibilities will grow, and so your general level of stress will remain about where it's been these past few years. People will recognize your talents. They will put you in charge of things. As your professional responsibilities rise, your personal responsibilities will rise even faster. As you come into your own professionally, you'll come into your own personally: your own mortgage, your own car payments, your own marriage or relationship, maybe even your own children. You will make hard personal choices about where to live, how to live, and who to live with. For some of you, these choices have been made, but for many of you, they lie ahead, and some days, during these next few years, it will seem unfair that everything has to happen all at once. So the good news is that the next few years will be terrifically exciting. The bad news is that they will be very scary.

What can I predict for you? First, during the next few years, most of you will change jobs once, twice, or even more. From personal experience, I can say that changing jobs is no cause for shame; I held four jobs before becoming a law professor, and as a professor, I have been in turns a teacher, a scholar, a litigator, and now a government official. If you had gone to medical school right now, you would be looking at residencies stretching into the next century. So don't worry if your first job turns out not to be your last. Changing jobs will be a normal and natural part of your post-graduate legal education.

Over the next few years, you will face many hard choices about how to balance careers versus lifestyle. Until now, choosing has been easy--you simply picked the option that left the most other options open. If there's an epitaph for your generation, it will surely be: "They died with their options open." But during the next few years, some of those options will close. With regret, you'll give up some of your dreams. Even if you achieve your professional goals, your success will exact a personal cost. You'll have to decide how much time to devote to your job and how much to yourself and your family. Sustaining the two-career family will become a challenging logistical puzzle. As you confront the questions of how much money and prestige really mean to you, you may have to choose between doing good and doing well.

As you make these choices, please remember that you went into law for the freedom that it would give you. You did not spend all these years building your resume so that you could be unhappy in your work and absent from your home. Work is important, but there are so many more important things than work.

Another prediction: in your work, you will face constant and difficult ethical choices, and the stakes will be high. The courts in which you will appear will not be moot courts; the cases that you will try will not be mock trials. Your carelessness or indifference will carry real consequences for your clients and yourselves. Matters of public importance, joy and heartbreak, and real money, not to mention your hard-earned reputation, will be on the line whenever you open your mouth or sign your name.

In making these choices--and you'll make them daily-- ou will feel very lonely. For all the love and support that is arrayed around you today and that you will continue to receive, you will find that there are some decisions that only you understand and that only you can make.

But that brings me to my final prediction: as you make these decisions about life and law, you will come to trust yourselves. More and more, you will come to believe in yourselves. After years of seeking wisdom from others, you will find it in yourselves.

As you make your life choices, you may first think that your life has no plan. But there will come a day, when you stop asking, "what satisfies them?" and start asking, "what satisfies me?" There will come a day when a case, a cause or a client touches your heart. And when that day comes, I ask only this: take the chance, seize the moment, please don't play it safe. For on that day, you will decide not only what you won't stand for, but what you actually do stand for.

For me, that moment came seven years ago, when I was asked to represent Haitian refugees in a lawsuit against the U.S. government. In school, I had always shied away from human rights work, for fear that it would be too politically risky. As a young man, my father had worked to promote human rights and democracy in Korea, and as a consequence was politically exiled. As I faced my own choice, my head said no, but my heart asked: what was my training for, if not for this? What are my credentials for, if not for others? And why did my parents sacrifice, if I lack the courage to do the same? In taking that case, I found, magically, that my life had a plan after all: without realizing it, I had trained my whole life to be an international human rights lawyer.

As I travel the world now, every day I feel vindicated in my choice. In my time as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, I have learned once again, that there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that the suffering is real. It's not just on CNN. All over this world, from Kosovo to East Timor, from Sudan to Sierra Leone, there is suffering so real that it hurts to see it close up. But there is still good news. Lawyers do matter. Good lawyers matter more. One person can make a difference. But to make that difference you need both ideas and energy, because human rights practice without theory is as thoughtless as human rights theory without practice is lifeless. For each of you in your own careers, I wish you the same good fortune that I have had. And when your moment comes, I hope that you will choose to commit yourself to careers not of selfishness, but of service, to some of the many people in this world who quite literally have nothing.

In the last 6 months, I have traveled to 20 countries. On those plane rides, I often think of the Odyssey: the story of a person who loves his home, but finds himself traveling around the world on a mission. When he finally returns home, years later, he looks different, though he is in fact the same, only older and wiser. During his life's journey, his lodestar is his home, for it is not just his perpetual destination, but his place of spiritual renewal, his moral compass.

So has this law school been for you. As the years go by, you will remember it not just as the place you received your legal education, but as the place where you gained your commitment to service, your moral bearings, the place where you got your Jedi training.

So as you rise to take your diploma, please take one moment to look at your teachers. Think about the ideas and the hours they have given to you. Please take a moment to think of your loved ones, your spouses, your parents, your families, and your friends --both those who are here and those who could not be here. Draw strength from their enormous confidence, faith, and love in you.

Please look at one another, and consider all you have shared and all that you have taught one another.

Finally and most important, please take this last moment to look inside yourselves. Trust the wisdom that you find there. Remember your dreams. Remember your values, those values that brought you here, and that brought you through here.

Good luck, my Millennium Falcons! Fly high, and God bless you.

[end of document] Blue Bar

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