NYLS’s 126th Commencement Celebrates Public Service, the Rule of Law, and Lawyers’ Critical Work Around the World

Carnegie Hall provided a grand and iconic setting for NYLS’s 126th Commencement exercises, held June 1, 2018. Nearly 300 graduates of the School’s J.D. and LL.M. in Taxation programs heard messages of inspiration from their classmates, Dean Anthony W. Crowell, and accomplished honorees, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, before crossing the stage to receive their diplomas. Their elated family and friends, along with distinguished alumni, faculty, and guests, packed Stern Auditorium, filling its nearly 3,000 seats.

The ceremony’s theme, “Lead locally, impact globally,” underscored the enduring need for lawyers and the rule of law in an increasingly borderless world, a message embraced by all of the speakers.

In his introductory remarks, Dean Crowell noted that NYLS and Carnegie Hall both opened their doors in 1891. The era, known as the Gilded Age, was a time of unprecedented innovation and economic expansion for America. Yet it was also marked by a growing gap between the nation’s richest and poorest inhabitants and a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

“We are again in the midst of unprecedented times, caught in a similar cross-wind with conflicting ideas about our country’s future,” Dean Crowell said. “In this time of rapid change, lawyers have an urgent responsibility to protect our institutions so they continue to serve as guardrails. Our most important institution is our American democratic system, made possible by the rule of law.”

He emphasized that lawyers today need courage amid the changing times: “A positive and sustainable future for our nation and world requires all of you to move forward with courage, in spite of any fears. Courageous lawyers are the ones who reject fear in favor of advancing justice, safeguarding institutions, and solving global problems.”

NYLS awarded honorary Doctor of Law (LL.D.) degrees to its keynote speaker Justice Breyer and to Alex Dimitrief, President and CEO of General Electric Company’s Global Growth Organization. Justice Breyer was introduced by the Honorable Robert A. Katzmann, Chief Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The School honored Monique Baptist ’18, as well as Neldra M. ’79 and Douglas Zeigler ’81, with its Kathleen Grimm Medal for Distinguished Public Service. The Grimm Medal is named for Kathleen Grimm, an alumna and trustee of NYLS, as well as one of New York City’s most committed public servants, who passed away in 2015. And NYLS recognized the accomplishments of Professor Stephen J. Ellmann and Christina M. Storm ’77, who founded the international nonprofit Lawyers Without Borders, with its President’s Medal.

Ann Pham ’18, Elizabeth Tran ’18, and Sara Moharrem ’18 gave moving accounts of their time at NYLS and the inspiration they drew from professors, classmates, and families. Ryan Medler ’18, President of the Student Bar Association, offered words of encouragement to his classmates and presented the Class of 2018 Teaching Award to Professor Kirk D. Burkhalter.

Numerous speakers paid tribute to Martin Banks ’18, who tragically passed away in February just days after he completed his J.D. degree. Banks’s family attended the ceremony, and his sister Deborah Williams accepted his degree. The day before, NYLS held a memorial reception to honor Banks’s remarkable kindness, intelligence, and empathy and his impact on the School community.

Excerpts From Honoree Speeches

The Honorable Stephen G. Breyer, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States

Hon. Stephen G. Breyer at the 2018 Commencement Podium

2018 Honorary Degree Recipient

After telling the Class of 2018 that he hoped they would have a happy family life and a satisfying career, Justice Breyer spoke about the importance of public service. During this portion of his remarks, he took out his ever-present pocket Constitution and held it up to the audience.

“And I can hope for you another thing, and that hope is, whatever your career, and whatever the situation is and how everything goes, you find the time to participate in public life. I can’t tell you you have to. I can’t tell you what form it should take. I don’t care if it’s the library board or the parking commission. I don’t care what it is. Maybe it’s going out and politically organizing; it doesn’t have to be. It’s at least voting. It’s at least talking to your friends. Why do I feel I can tell you something like that? The reason I can tell you, I think, is because every day I work with this document: the Constitution. It does pretty well, not perfectly, but pretty well. And I can tell you out of my own experience, if you choose not to do that, if you choose not to participate, this document will not work. … It foresees your participation.”

Alex Dimitrief, President and CEO, Global Growth Organization, General Electric Company 

Alex Dimitrief at the 2018 Commencement Podium

2018 Honorary Degree Recipient

Dimitrief spoke about his pride in General Electric’s work to bridge the gender divide in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) positions by 2020. He also offered his personal perspective.

“Today’s theme of bridging cultures is personal to me as a first-generation American. I stand before you this afternoon as living proof that the American Dream can be more than a romantic ideal—a son of Russian parents, Valentina and Alexei, who came to this country nearly 60 years ago without knowing a single word of English and, by dint of their hard work and sheer determination, made incredible opportunities available to me for which I will be forever grateful … You are joining a profession with a great tradition of acting as catalysts for change and promoting justice in our jobs, through our pro bono activities, and through volunteer organizations. Time will sometimes be hard to find, but please do not let the busy life of a new lawyer completely get in the way of your larger aspirations. Remember, lead locally, impact globally.”

Christina M. Storm ’77, Founder and Executive Director, Lawyers Without Borders

Christina Storm '77 at the 2018 Commencement Podium

2018 President’s Medal Recipient

Storm recounted how her mentors at NYLS, including former Adjunct Professors Maurice Nessen and Milton Gould and Dean Emeritus Donald Shapiro, encouraged her to launch her successful international nonprofit, Lawyers Without Borders. She then shared wisdom she now passes on to recent graduates:

“At a talk I gave at Oberlin College last month, a student told me he wanted to do the kind of work I was doing and asked me how he should go about charting the course. My advice seemed to resonate with him—and to be honest—I think probably it reflected what I unwittingly followed myself these last 40 years of lawyering: Imagine yourself here, on a stage in front of hundreds of people, looking back—how do you want your story to read?  Make that your path forward. I have a saying that I urge you to take to heart, no matter how inauspicious your beginnings may have been: No one but you gets to be the author of your narrative.”

Stephen J. Ellmann, Martin Professor of Law and Director of Clinical and Experiential Learning, NYLS

Stephen Ellmann at the 2018 Commencement Podium

2018 President’s Medal Recipient

Professor Ellmann, an award-winning author on South African law, is currently at work on a book about Arthur Chaskalson, the former Chief Justice of South Africa. In his remarks, he drew inspiration from his subject’s world-view.

“We trust that our law has some measure of definiteness and stability. Now that may not seem like a big deal, but in South Africa, lawyers like Arthur Chaskalson used that kind of principle, some measure of definiteness and stability, to fight back against apartheid in the courts of South Africa itself. … Arthur saw human dignity as a key constitutional value embedded in the law and as a mandate for transformation. … American judges also have seen human dignity as a key constitutional value. And many of you who took part in New York Law School’s own clinics have already had the experience of using law, the rule of law, to promote justice here at home.”

Monique Baptist ’18

Monique Baptist '18 at the 2018 Commencement Podium

2018 Kathleen Grimm Medal for Distinguished Public Service Recipient

Baptist, who was highly active in public-service work as an NYLS student, will become an Assistant Corporation Counsel in the New York City Law Department’s Family Court Division this summer.

“Helping others is a privilege. And as lawyers, it is our privilege to help those who need legal assistance. It is a privilege to commit to a public mission that will positively impact the city we live in. Even though I receive this award today, I know that what I have done for the public is just a fraction of what I can do. And I vow here today to spend the rest of my life in service of those who cannot help themselves. … We at New York Law School come from all walks of life: immigrants, minorities, orphans, mothers and fathers, and first generation graduates. Regardless of where you are from or what circumstances you come from, today we stand together on equal ground, as lawyers, bonded by our passion to uphold the law and serve others. This is our time!”

Excerpts From Student Speeches

Ryan Medler ’18, Student Bar Association President

Ryan Medler at the 2018 Commencement Podium“Our class is smart, diverse, and as thoughtful as any law graduate could have wanted. And, as we leave here today, we must recognize one of the greatest gifts that New York Law School has given to us: the power of independent thinking. That to be an independent thinker, we must approach decision making logically, to understand the law, examine all facts and verifiable data in light of the law, and to draw conclusions based upon what is right and just, and not what is easy or politically convenient.”

 

Sara Moharrem ’18

Sara Moharrem at the 2018 Commencement Podium“We have all persevered through some form of tragedy, through mental anguish, and through those days where we thought, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ To get through life, we have to keep moving. We can’t rely on people cutting us breaks, we can’t make excuses, and we can’t stop and feel sorry for ourselves, at least not if we want to be successful. Our clients deserve better than that. And now, more than ever, the America we live in today needs advocates like us.”

 

Ann Pham ’18

Ann Pham at the 2018 Commencement Podium“Our time at New York Law School has … given us the skills and knowledge necessary for us to take on the world, and further fueled our passion to pursue our chosen path. … It was here that I learned from hardworking, women lawyers, who were not only my professors, but also my role models. They showed me that you don’t have to be the loudest or most dominating person in the room to make a difference. They demonstrated that conviction, passion, and compassion are some of the most powerful tools a lawyer can possess.”

 

Elizabeth Tran ’18

Elizabeth Tran at the 2018 Commencement PodiumElizabeth spoke about her 90-year-old grandfather, Phuc Truong, who was a successful fisherman on the docks of the Berkeley Pier in California. Though he does not speak or read English, Elizabeth noted, other fishermen on the pier frequently turned to him for advice.

“I decided to go to law school so that I, too, could be so good at something that other people would come seek me out for advice. More than anything, I wanted to be able to help them. … And throughout the past three years, I was able to do that at New York Law School, as a teaching assistant for Professor Chang’s 1L criminal law class, as a student ambassador giving advice to admitted students, as a student leader for First Generation Professionals, as an instructor for the Street Law Clinic, and as an advocate in the Education Law Clinic.”

At the conclusion of her speech, Elizabeth addressed her grandfather in Vietnamese, inviting him to stand and be applauded by the audience. She said,
“Grandpa, look, I did it, I found my Berkeley Pier here at New York Law School.”

Be Part of Commencement

  • Read the Commencement program, which lists awards and honoree bios.
  • Watch video of Commencement.
  • See photos from the Dean’s reception for graduates and families the night before Commencement.
  • View and download images from the ceremony at Carnegie Hall.