On Saturday, May 17, at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, the University of Maine School of Law will graduate its class of 2014 of which I am a member. After three years of sleep-depriving course work, three-hour tightly timed exams, all-night paper writing, clinical work representing those most in need of legal aid and least able to afford it, and so much more, we have made it.
While we all have a bar exam to pass at the end of this summer, this is a time to rejoice nonetheless, for it wasn’t easy to get here.
My request to my fellow almost-lawyers is that we never forget what we learned the last three years — and especially the meaning and origin behind what we learned. Law school, in my view, was never merely a collection of statutes, case law and archaic common law rules to cram for to pass an exam, but rather, it was a three-year long reflection into humanity’s quest for its own soul and freedom.
Let it not be lost on my classmates that when we walk the stage in that auditorium, and several months later when we take the oath of admission to the bar, we will be doing far more than the reward of three years of hard work. We will all be standing as the heirs of a thousand years of history.
Remember that the quest for rule of law was one that was fought over and which required the spilling of blood in order for people to be assured due process. New lawyers are the heirs of that time nearly 800 years ago, when King John of England was forced to sign the Magna Carta, and for the first time acknowledge that even the king was bound to the law and was not above it.
Don’t forget that the mere right to due process — that your grievance will be heard fairly and judged over — was one that required the spilling of blood to attain. Don’t forget that something as basic and simple as an imprisoned person’s right to be brought to a court so that the legality of his imprisonment could be proven — the writ of habeas corpus — came from all the lives lost because of arbitrary rulers who could just disappear someone into jail and deny their existence.
Never forget that each and every single legal right that we take for granted and even hallowed in our legal system, whether it be freedom of speech, an accused person’s right to legal counsel, the right to the freedom to not be owned by someone else, and all other rights, are not written in ink but, rather, in the blood of all the millions who have died trying to get those freedoms and rights.
As such, it is our duty as future lawyers to ensure that we never disgrace the memory of these martyrs but honor and further them.
This applies to all future lawyers — whether they defend civil rights in the Supreme Court out of a Washington think tank, help entrepreneurs patent their inventions out of a law firm, or draft people’s wills out of a small-town solo practice in The County. They will be protecting people with that rule of law that took centuries — and lives — to build.
That is why I ask all my classmates to not see this graduation ceremony and our later bar oath as merely the formality to join a profession but as a promise about how to lead our lives. As lawyers, we will be the ones to defend that rule of law that is so essential to civilization, and thus, I implore them to never turn their back when they see injustice, and to never be afraid to call out when somebody’s rights are being trampled, and to never budge to pressures to sacrifice those principles.
That is the solemn vow we are taking this Saturday and over the next few months: to be worthy heirs to these thousand years of history.
Victoria M. Rodriguez-Roldan of Portland is a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Maine School of Law, where she served as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Law Caucus chair for two and a half years. She will graduate Saturday.