Stanford law grads are urged to use the courage of their consciences

1,500 friends and family members cheer on the Law School Class of 2011.

Photos by Grad Images George Fisher, co-director of Stanford Law School's Criminal Prosecution Clinic

George Fisher, co-director of Stanford Law School's Criminal Prosecution Clinic

"Do you have the courage of conscience – the courage to resist pressures, however great or subtle, to ignore the inconvenient commands of your conscience?"

This was the question asked on Saturday by George Fisher, co-director of Stanford Law School's Criminal Prosecution Clinic, in his message to the Law School's graduating class.

"When I look back at my early years as a Massachusetts prosecutor, I see with regret and pain that I sometimes lacked the courage of conscience.  I sometimes yielded to the contrary commands of my superiors, my pride or my ambitions," Fisher said. He recounted his first homicide case, a negligent motor vehicle homicide in which the driver had been driving at normal speed on a dark night and did not see the victim lying in the street prior to hitting him. The driver showed great remorse, and it was clear to Fisher that she intended no harm.

Still, the law was broken, and despite Fisher's attempts to convince him otherwise, his boss insisted he prosecute.

"I had a decision to make. I could live by my own conscience and withdraw from the case, or I could cave to his command," Fisher said. In the end he went against his conscience and followed his boss's orders.

"To my good fortune I lost. My problem was not the facts or the law, for both were on my side. My problem was the fundamental injustice of conviction on those facts," Fisher said. "Others saw that injustice as clearly as I had. Others had the courage to act on it. Decades have passed since that day, yet I still look back at my choice with regret. It was a failure of conscience, a failure of the courage to do right as I saw the right."

Fisher, who was awarded the John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching, delivered his address to more than 1,500 family members and friends at Stanford Law School's graduation ceremony at Canfield Courtyard. This year's ceremony included 193 candidates for the degree of Doctor of Jurisprudence and 51 for Master of Laws degrees: 20 in the area of Corporate Governance & Practice, 20 in the area of Law, Science & Technology, and 11 for International Economic Law, Business & Policy.

Additionally, 12 graduates were awarded the degree of Master of the Science of Law, four were awarded degrees in the Doctor of the Science of Law, and two graduates were awarded a Master of Legal Studies degree. 

Fisher urged the graduates to learn from his mistake as they proceed into their own careers.

"You will face pressures like those I faced – pressure to please your boss or client, pressures to succeed or burnish your pride," he said. "Sometimes those pressures will accord with your conscience and the governing rules of ethics. When they do not, take pause. Set aside the pressures of the moment. Then walk 10 steps down the road and look back at yourselves. Don't leave yourself wondering, as I did, why your courage went wanting."

Sean Hassan, who was chosen by his classmates to deliver the student remarks, reinforced Fisher's message.

"Over the past few years Stanford Law School has made it possible for so many of us to give voice to the voiceless and the vulnerable," Hassan said. "The challenge for those of us receiving our degrees today is to continue this commitment when we don't have the Mills Legal Clinic or the Levin Center facilitating our efforts and when we have countervailing pressures of billable hours and other responsibilities that make such a commitment all that more difficult."

Procession for the Law School ceremony.

The Law School's graduating class included 262 candidates for degrees.

Co-presidents of the graduating class, Sarah Corinne Greer and Ilissa Stacy Samplin, presented the 2011 Dean's Award for Excellence in Service to classmate Janine Ann Wetzel and the 2011 Staff Appreciation Award to Catherine Glaze, associate dean for student affairs.

In his address to the class, Larry Kramer, the dean of the Law School, noted the importance of the legal profession to society, ticking off the high number of lawyers in positions of leadership in areas from law to business to government. He also emphasized the importance of "reasoned empathy" to lawyers, and to good governance.

"Today, I want to focus on a particular habit of mind that is central to being an effective lawyer but too seldom emphasized – namely, understanding that, when people disagree, there always are arguments on both sides, and people on both sides genuinely believe their point of view to be both reasonable and right," he said. "It's a grave mistake, one I hope you will not make, to assume that people who disagree with you really know that they are wrong and you are right, but have some evil or self-interested motive for pretending otherwise. No attitude is more destructive, because it impedes the process of compromise and accommodation that is indispensable in a free society."

Kramer lamented today's "age of ideology," in which political discourse is often hostile and uncompromising.

"We live in an age of ideology, a time when, for too many of our political leaders, facts and the interpretation of facts seem to be determined and controlled by preexisting ideological commitments rather than the reverse," he said.

"Democratic politics is failing," Kramer added.  "And one reason it has stopped working is that critical mediators of disagreement – namely, evidence and experience – have practically ceased to matter. Too many people care about them only as tools to manipulate. Too many people embrace dogmas of one sort or another that tell them all they need. Evidence that challenges their beliefs is avoided or ignored or dismissed as a product of wrong-headed self-interest."

Kramer went on to read from Elizabeth Bishop's poem "At the Fishhouses," drawing on her comparison of knowledge to the sea.

"Knowledge comes from the world – like the ocean, which is 'drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts.' Knowledge is not whatever we want it to be, not something we can control or make to suit our convenience," he said.

Noting the many important, perhaps critically so, decisions that this new set of potential world leaders would face, Kramer encouraged them to face them head on and honestly.

"I can't tell you how to make these decisions. All I can say is this: you must be relentlessly – and I mean relentlessly – honest with yourself," he said. "Self-delusion is easy, and no one is better at it than a well-trained lawyer. A good advocate first persuades him or herself, after all, and lawyers quickly grow comfortable with the process. It becomes all-too simple to convince yourself that what is easy is also what is best." 

Kramer concluded the ceremony by sharing that he found one of the best things about being a dean is spending time with the alumni, the students of the past.

"I see the countless different ways in which they have gone on to do remarkable, impressive things," he said. "I get to hear first-hand the countless different ways in which they have surpassed us, their former teachers. I love that our graduates go on to surpass us, love even more that the time they spent here played an important part in shaping who they became and what they accomplished."

"You are the remarkable alumni of the future," he added.  "And I, along with everyone else here, can't wait to see what you do."

Alexandria Murray is a Social Media Specialist at Stanford Law School.