Jeh Johnson, Roberta Kaplan Warn Law Grads of Nation at Risk

New York Law Journal
Published on:
June 4th, 2019
Jeh Johnson speaking at the graduation of St. John’s University School of Law on Sunday. Photo: Jad Nammour.

Politics and the state of the nation were fertile territory for some law school graduate on speeches this year, including two that were delivered by prominent law firm partners from New York who implored graduates to rise above the rhetoric.

Jeh Johnson, former Homeland Security Department secretary and now a Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner, delivered a graduation address at St. John’s University School of Law in Queens on Sunday.

Noting that he was “one of the few Democrats left who appears on MSNBC and is not running for president or anything else,” Johnson said he was speaking as “a concerned private citizen.” He urged graduates to conduct themselves above standards accepted by political leaders today.

Johnson, acknowledging the Obama administration in which he served had “our share of mistakes and setbacks,” said he was watching with “growing despair and alarm as the standards of behavior, decency and ethics among our nation’s political leaders spiral downward.”

For instance, he said, “there are credible legal arguments that our sitting president used the powers of his office to obstruct justice.” He added, “a candidate for Congress can assault a member of the press one day and get elected the next” while a U.S. Senate candidate “credibly accused of molesting teenage girls was almost elected.”

“Our government is descending into a reality TV show,” he declared. “In Washington today false statements, personal insults, leaks, abuse of power, corruption, betrayal, self-absorption and allegations of sexual misconduct have become commonplace.”

“Those of us in the legal profession must take care that a similar downward spiral in standards does not happen to us,” said Johnson. He told graduates they must “rededicate” themselves to key principles, such as adhering to their promises and creating trust; keeping confidential client confidences; treating others—superiors and subordinates—with respect; respecting diversity; and not compromising on truth and accuracy. “There are no ‘alternative facts,’” he said.

While Johnson has spent two-thirds of his career in private practice, he is most known for the roles he has held in several stints in public service.

“Though the salary of a cabinet officer charged with the responsibility of protecting the entire U.S. homeland is about the same as a second-year associate, my public service has been by far the most gratifying part of my career,” he said, and will be “the first paragraph of my obituary.”

Meanwhile, Roberta Kaplan, a former colleague of Johnson at Paul Weiss who now leads Kaplan Hecker & Fink, spoke at the Harvard Law School Class Day ceremonies May 29, ahead of their commencement the following day.

Telling students that they were graduating at “one of the most unsettled moments in our nation’s history,” she noted political concerns as well as broader social issues, such as an increase in hate crimes and bigotry toward minorities and misogyny exposed by the #MeToo movement.

“Our elected officials struggle to address soaring income inequality, access to affordable health care, an epidemic of gun violence, and the imminent threat of climate change,” Kaplan said. “Whatever your politics or party, we can agree that our society has become dangerously polarized, and our politics profoundly divisive. The rule of law has taken a beating and has never looked more tenuous.”

Kaplan, who represented Edith Windsor in a U.S. Supreme Court case that found the Defense of Marriage Act violated the Constitution, told graduates they “have a duty to act” by seeking opportunities to make the world better.

“When you see a problem, don’t just wait for a solution to magically present itself. Instead, ask yourself: ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’” Kaplan said. “The people who stand the most to lose from the battles raging around us do not have the privilege of being at this ceremony today. They need your help, now more than ever.”


Read this at the New York Law Journal.