Sally Q. Yates, the former United States acting attorney general, encouraged Law School students to fight the instinct to follow a “risk-free course” at the school’s Class Day Wednesday.
Yates made national headlines in January when President Donald Trump fired her only ten days into his presidency after she refused to defend an executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“I believed then and I believe now that resigning would have protected my personal integrity, but it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice,” Yates remarked about her brief tenure as acting attorney general. “The Department of Justice is not just another law firm and this wasn’t just any legal issue. It was about a core founding principle of religious freedom.”
Addressing soon-to-be graduates outside the Law School’s library, Langdell Hall, Yates used four main lessons she said she has learned during her 31 years as a lawyer to frame the speech.
Earning undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia, Yates was appointed deputy attorney general—the Justice Department’s second-highest ranking official—in 2015 under former President Barack Obama and became the country’s chief law enforcement officer upon Trump’s inauguration.
“You never know when a situation will present itself and you’re going to have to decide who you are and what you stand for,” Yates said describing her experiencing confronting Trump’s travel ban. “The defining moments in our lives often don’t come with advance warning.”
Concluding her remarks, Yates entreated the law students to “decide what you believe is worth fighting for.”
“I hope the fear of being wrong won’t keep you from acting,” she continued. “To fully embrace both life and practicing law, you have got to be willing to take a risk, to be uncomfortable, to be bold.”
The Law School’s Class Day ceremony marked the beginning of their bicentennial celebration as the school continues to reexamine long-held practices around issues including admissions, an evolving curriculum, and campus culture. The occasion also featured one of the final addresses by outgoing Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow, who will step down in July to return to teaching full-time.
Yates shared the stage with speakers including Peter C. Krause, president of the Harvard Law School Association, Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells, and professor Mark Wu ’96, who received a teaching award.
The Law School’s Class of 2017 is the first time in the history of the oldest continuously operating law school in the United States that men and women were equally represented in the graduating class, according to Class Marshal Rebecca M. Murday.
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