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COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

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New England Law | Boston


100th Commencement Address
May 27, 2011

JANE SULLIVAN-ROBERTS*

hank you, Dean OBrien, for that wonderful introduction. At an


Italian birthday party, you raise your glass and exclaim: Chen
Tanni! It means: May you live to be a hundred. Now thats a
great toast for someone on their fiftieth birthday or even their seventy-fifth.
But by the time you get to the ninety-eighth, and certainly to the ninetyninth, it gets a little awkward. On the hundredth, it doesnt work at all. So,
lets change the toast today and say: Due Chen Tanni! May this school
live to be two- hundred-years-old! The toast will have to be changed in
another hundred years, but Ill let someone else worry about that then.
What a tremendous honor to join all of you for this centennial
commencement at New England Law | Boston, the first law school to dare
to offer a legal education to women exclusively. At one point, fully a
quarter of all women in the law were graduates of your alma mater, back
when it was called Portia Law School, and tuition was a whopping
seventy-five dollars a year.
Portia graduates went on to become leaders in the bar, trailblazers who
set the standard for women in the legal profession today. Because of those
trailblazers, many of us here in the Wang Center this morning now have
choices in our legal careers. Not only every woman who is a lawyer today,
but every member of the bar, owes a debt of gratitude to New England

* Jane Sullivan-Roberts is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Major, Lindsey &
Africa, a preeminent legal search firm. She focuses on the representation of individual law
firm partners and groups. She also conducts searches for senior in-house positions. She is the
wife of Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Jr.

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Law | Boston.
And let me say that every one of you who graduates today owes an
even bigger debt to your parents, spouses, families, and friends. So, please
. . . stand up . . . turn around . . . and give them the thanks they deserve by
giving them a hand.
Id like to talk to you today about some of the choices Ive made in my
legal career and about a few lessons Ive learned that might be useful to
you. But dont worry; as the late Elizabeth Taylor told each of her eight
husbands: I wont keep you long.
First, a little about my family. My fathers parents came from Ireland
before World War I, and my grandfather got his American citizenship by
serving in the army during the war. They had four sons. Thanks to the GI
Bill and to the value my grandparents placed on education, all four sons
went to college. My mother was born in Ireland, went to post-war London
in 1947, and loved it. Three years later, she came to New York on a lark and
never looked back. My parents met and married in New York. They had
four kidsI am the oldestand they raised us in the Bronx, right next
door to the house in which my father grew up. I had a lot of fun growing
up in the Bronx. Our block was teeming with baby-boomer kids, and we
played a lot of stick ball and punch ball in the street.
I went to the College of the Holy Cross, thanks to a patchwork of
scholarships, campus jobs, and countless sacrifices by my parents. I was a
math major. After that, like my mother, I wanted to see the world. I left for
three years in Australia on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study
education, theology, and the history of math. When I returned to the
United States, I got a masters in applied math and worked as a systems
engineer before deciding to go to law school.
Along the way, I worked many jobs to make ends meet. Ive been a
restaurant waitress, a hotel hostess, a car parker, a nurses aide, a maid in a
motel, a bookkeeper, and a researcher. I was an Irish Catholic waitress in a
Greek restaurant in a Jewish neighborhood. I was also a cocktail waitress in
a port town near the iron ore mines in far Western Australia, a thousand
miles from the nearest paved road, and I hitch-hiked to get there. It was
like the Wild West with miners ordering rum and Coke by the pitcher and
huge bar bouncers from the Thursday Islands throwing miners who got
out of hand out the window.
Through all those jobs I learned three things: get it right; do it quickly;
and keep a smile on my face. As it turned out, these were all invaluable
lessons for the professional path that still lay ahead of me.
After I finished law school, I clerked on the Fourth Circuit, traveled
around the world, and then finally settled down to practice litigation in a
big law firm. I had law school loans to repay.

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Commencement Address 2011

In 1996, I married my husband, John. He is a lawyer who works for the


federal government. Four years after we were married, we were blessed
with our two children. In 2005, my brother was killed in a terrible car
accident, leaving a wife and three children behind.
Going through that tragedy made me realize that life is short and that I
should be doing what I love and do best. At the law firm, I had been
serving on the Talent Development Committee and loved helping lawyers
at every levelfrom new associates to senior partnersfind their strengths
and develop their legal and business talents to the fullest.
So, over the years, I switched from mathematics to engineering; and
from engineering to law; and within law, from litigation to transactions;
and then found that what I really loved is helping people define success
for themselves and find their own path to it. Ive come to believe there are
many paths to success, if you can be the best you you can be. So, thats
how I became a professional legal recruiter.
Over the last twenty-five years, I have observed a lot of lawyers and
other professionals, and I have learned a lot from them. Let me tell you
three brief stories.
The first story involves Tom, a neonatal pediatric specialist. When I
was living in Australia, Tom arrived Down Under to help a hospital in
Sydney open an ICU section for newborn babies. Over dinner one night, he
described the long hours he had worked as a resident just out of medical
schooltypically eighty to ninety hours per week, week after week.
Shocked, I told him I thought that was inhuman. He didnt think so.
Instead, he explained that that hard work had quickly given him the
experience and confidence that would allow him, in a crisis, to put a tube
down a newborn babys tiny throat.
Its the same for lawyers. If you want to be an excellent lawyer, you
have to work hard.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell calls it the Ten Thousand
Hour Rule. He says that to be truly expert at what you dowhether you
are the Beatles or Bill Gates or a pediatric specialist in Australia or a young
lawyer in Bostonyou have to practice what you do for ten thousand
hours.
Thats why we call it the practice of law because our profession often
begins as a ten-thousand-hour apprenticeship, under the supervision of
more senior lawyers. At times, it will not seem like much funlong hours,
grunt work, being at the beck and call of others. Soon enough, however,
the hard work pays off as you gain experience, confidence, and
judgmentand win the trust of your clients.
As I think about all the hard work that lies ahead of you, I am
reminded of my first day of law schoolboth big days in our lives, full of
hope and opportunity. Father Healy, the legendary head of Georgetown

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University, spoke to my incoming class at law school. He said, The first


year of law school is really hard. There are going to be times when you just
dont think you can make it. In your lowest moments, look up at those
second- and third-year students, and say to yourself, If those silly bastards
could do it, so can I.
So, Im saying to you today, on the threshold of your legal career: If
you work hard, you can do it too.
Heres another story. When I was a young lawyer in Washington, I
went to my law firms annual rooftop party, overlooking the city. I saw an
older gentleman standing alone to the side. I thought, No one likes to be
alone at a party, so I went over and introduced myself. His name was
Johnnot to be confused with my father John, my brother John, or my
husband Johnand, as it turned out, John and I were both Irish-Catholic,
both from New York, and we had a lot in common. He asked if Id like to
work on some of his big deals in something new called the commercialsatellite industry. This was back in the olden days in the early 1990s.
Even though I had never met him before, I said, Yes. John was
immediately a tremendous role model for me. He quickly became my
mentor and eventually my sponsor for promotion to partner. John changed
my career.
There are many lessons I can draw from this encounter with John, but
let me highlight just a couple. The first is the importance of courage. It
takes a bit of courage to reach out to a stranger and to do something a little
uncomfortable. During the course of your career, there will be many
occasions when youre going to need some couragesometimes just a shot
of it, sometimes several gallons. It takes courage to knock on a door and
ask your boss for work or help. It takes courage to say yes to an
unexpected opportunity that will take you in a new direction. It takes
courage to advocate for your client when you know youre pushing the
boundaries of the law. Sometimes doing the right thing means being very
brave. But if you practice being courageous in the small things, theres no
question what youll do in the big things.
The second is the importance of connecting with people. The key to
connecting with people is having some empathy for them. Try to feel what
they might be going through and then do something about it. In reaching
out to John, the satellite lawyer who was standing alone at a party, I gained
rewards I never would have imagined. As a legal recruiter, I see it all the
time: The best lawyerswhether they are prosecutors, public defenders,
partners, or general counselput themselves in the place of their clients.
The best lawyers figure out what their clients want; what keeps them up at
night; and what they need to do to look good in front of their boss, clients,
or board of directors, so they can keep their job. The best lawyers ask good
questions; listen carefully to what their clients are really saying; figure out

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what they really need and want; and help them achieve their legitimate
goals. And, as a result, they become very, very successful.
Heres my final story, which happened just last fall. The Sisters of
Mercy, who ran my high school in the Bronx, called and asked if Id travel
to the school and give a talk. It just so happened that a wealthy benefactor
was also visiting the school that day, and she arranged to have her driver,
Joereputedly the best driver in New Yorkpick us up at the airport in a
town car and bring us to the Bronx. I asked Joe where he lived, and he said,
Long Island, but I used to live in Brooklyn. So I asked him why he
moved to Long Island. He said he needed more room for his cars. Thinking
he must own a fleet of town cars, I asked him, Well, how many cars do
you own? Joe replied, I have a couple of million cars. He was of course
exaggerating, but only a bit. He went on to explain that he owned every
matchbox car ever made . . . in every style . . . in every color . . . in their
original boxes.
Then he told me this: Every Christmas he sells a number of them and
uses the money to buy 300 wheelchairs that he himself assembles and gives
to disabled children who otherwise couldnt afford one.
Now what does Joes story have to do with being a lawyer? Each and
every one of you has been blessed with this wonderful legal education at
New England Law | Boston, with supportive families and friends, and
with your own unique interests and passions. Now its time to put your
education, talents, and skills at the service of those less fortunate than
yourselves. You can work pro-bono for a non-profit negotiating leases,
drafting corporate documents, or protecting its intellectual property. You
can represent a child in guardian proceedings. There are plenty of ways
you can help others through your legal training.
Or, outside it. If you like books, choose one, and read it out loud to a
child. If you like to play chess, grab a chessboard and head to a senior
citizen home. You could collect matchbox cars and sell them to buy
wheelchairs. Be generous. It is no accident that so many New England Law
| Boston graduates go on to careers in public service, fighting for justice for
the most vulnerable members of our society. You understand what it
means to be men and women for others, and to give back as much as you
can.
Some of the choices Ive talked about todayworking hard, having
courage and empathy, and giving backare just that: choices. They are not
genetic traits we inherit at birth. They are qualities that are within our
control, and we acquire them through attitude, practice, and habit.
This school is full of people who have taken many paths to greatness:
from your founder, Arthur MacLean, to hundreds of trailblazing graduates
across the New England bar . . . to educational leaders like your current
dean and fellow alumnus, John OBrien. No offense to Dean OBrien and

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your fellow alums, but if those silly bastards could do it, so can you.
You are in the right place todayhere, as graduates of New England
Law | Bostonand you got here because of your talent and hard work.
Those of you who have been car parkers, maids in motels, bartenders, and
even Irish-Catholic waitresses in Greek restaurants in Jewish
neighborhoods know what Im talking about. You have learned, as I did,
the importance of doing it right, doing it quickly, and having a smile on
your face. And that knowledge will serve you better than you can imagine
as you head into the bright future that awaits you.
Have the courage to find your own path to greatness; keep a smile on
your face; and most importantly, be the best you the world has ever seen.
But firstgo celebrate your success.
Congratulations!