In the hour before the beginning of UCLA Law’s commencement ceremony – the first in-person, live commencement held since 2019 – graduates streamed towards Dickson Court North in their black robes and blue-and-gold UCLA sashes. Some ambled, relishing the moment; others strode, with purpose, for what was surely a big day for them and their parents. (And their parents were easy to spot. One toted a large hand-painted sign reading “Go, Hannah!” Another held aloft one that read, “You did it, Joc!”)
A large crowd of well more than 2000 friends, family, faculty, and staff were gathering to honor the cohort of graduates, which included 342 juris doctor (J.D.) degree candidates, 237 master of laws (LL.M.) degree candidates, and one doctor of juridical science (S.J.D.) candidate. In addition, 28 master of legal studies (M.L.S.) degrees were set to be bestowed on a predictably perfect Friday afternoon.
After a joyful, raucous, and celebratory procession into the courtyard – marching to the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” – and a rendition of the national anthem sung by Ariana Bustos ’22, who was selected by her classmates for the honor, law school Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin welcomed the crowd.
The event was also streamed live with another 1500 people watching on UCLA Law’s YouTube channel and website.
Interrupted by Pandemic
Dean Mnookin reflected on the reality of law school during a global pandemic, noting that “the world really did go topsy-turvy.” The class of ’22 spent most of their first year on-campus, then switched to virtual learning, and then came back to campus for their final year – a surreal experience that many of the student speakers alluded to.
J.D. class president Aajah Hunter said, “This may not be the law school experience we envisioned…but I am very grateful to have gone through this confusing, at time verging on chaotic, but ultimately worthwhile experience with this resilient and incredibly bright class.” Representing the LL.M. and S.J.D. Class was Zhihuang Huang, who acknowledged the pandemic but focused on how UCLA Law “enabled us to look at ourselves, our lives, and the whole world through a new set of lenses.”
M.L.S. class representative Ryan Carter told his fellow graduates, only the second class in UCLA Law’s M.L.S. program, “We blazed a path in our program that hopefully will become a destination for generations of students like us.” And the last of the student speakers was Ciara Westbrook, who spoke movingly of her journey to UCLA Law and what she found when she came to Los Angeles: “some of the most welcoming, wonderful, and genuine people that I know.” She said, “I’m indescribably proud of what we’ve done and all the obstacles we’ve overcome to get here.”
Janai Nelson’96: On the Responsibilities of Lawyers Today
President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Janai Nelson ’96 was the event’s keynote speaker – and she delivered on every level: heartfelt congratulations to the graduates and their families, a sober assessment of the issues of today, and hopeful reminders of the challenges and opportunities for this new generation of lawyers and leaders.
Nelson recalled her own sense of “exhilaration and trepidation” she felt when graduating in 1996, “knowing that your daily life at UCLA Law is about to come to an end, but the future you worked so hard to obtain is just about to begin.” She spoke of a sit-in she’d participated in to protest Proposition 209 – which banned race-based affirmative action – adding, “Little did we know then that 25 years later, we’d still be fighting … in the Supreme Court to defend affirmative action…under the misnomer of critical race theory….Prop 209 was a harbinger of the future that you are in now.”
She alluded to other pressing issues of today – including the pandemic, climate change, and war – but concentrated her speech on the fact that “our own democracy is in turmoil.”
But she was also hopeful: “You will lead a future that hangs in the balance but also one that has the promise to become one of the country’s greatest moments of transformation.” She said, “There is a future where the United States is a vibrant, thriving, inclusive democracy, but we have to choose to take that path, and to continually do the work to preserve and perfect it.
“Democracy is an action, not an inevitability.”
Although Nelson acknowledged that “not one generation could or should be asked to solve problems centuries in the making,” she said that “we as lawyers all have a special assignment to see both the full threat and the full opportunity before us.”
“You are entering the legal profession at a pivotal moment in our democracy,” she said, “and there is a privilege in the power that you hold. Each of you enters this exclusive profession with the tools, the skills, the acumen, and the status that less than one percent of this country’s population possesses.”
And she provided some practical guidance on putting that privilege to work, encouraging the graduates “not to lament about the state of our democracy from the sidelines…instead use your power to help lead the charge.” She offered several possibilities: “Get involved in local elections, not only as voters but as poll workers, as volunteer lawyers on Election Day….represent indigent clients pro bono, serve on a bar association to uphold the ethics of the profession.”
She also encouraged the graduates to commit to lifelong learning, “not only to hone your craft as a lawyer but also to better understand the dynamic world.”
Despite the reality of what she called “an existential moment in the American experience,” Nelson said that she was hopeful about the future: “When I look out at you, the class of 2022 and the promise that you hold, you give me renewed energy….Find a way to do justice from your perch in the world.”
The conferring of degrees took place after Nelson’s stirring speech, and the cheers and ovations continued for more than an hour while more than six hundred names were called and diplomas awarded.