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Toobin tells law graduates to follow in O'Connor's footsteps

May 16, 2013

Jeffrey Toobin, a high-profile senior analyst for CNN and one of the country's most esteemed experts on politics, media and the law, told graduates of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to give back to the community, be engaged and informed citizens, and not to be discouraged by the difficult times into which they are launched.

“I work in cable news, so I am a master of the obvious,” Toobin told the Class of 2013 during its commencement on May 9 at Gammage Auditorium on ASU’s Tempe campus. “So here’s something obvious: 2013 is not the greatest time ever to graduate from law school. The economy is not great. The economy in the law business is especially not great. Times are tough.

“But let me give you an example of another tough time: 1952. That was the year that a new law school graduate - not someone lucky enough to graduate from ASU - but a new law school graduate, sent out 40 letters and didn’t get a single job offer or even a single job interview, although she did get a job offer as a legal secretary.

“So the first job she took was as a junior lawyer in San Mateo County, Calif. Then she worked for the U.S. Army when her husband was stationed in Germany. And, finally, she came to Phoenix, where over the next four decades or so, she became the most influential woman in the history of the United States.

“And that’s, of course, Sandra Day O’Connor, for whom your law school is named.”

The Class of 2013, which includes students completing their coursework in December, had 210 candidates for the Juris Doctorate (J.D.), 10 candidates for Master of Laws (LL.M.) and 11 for Master of Legal Studies (M.L.S).

He singled out a few: Lacy Cooper, who completed a doctorate in justice and social inquiry; Stephanie Whisnant who, with a group of students from the Indian Legal Program, drafted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court; Eduardo Amorim, an LL.M. candidate, who defended an athlete before the Court of Arbitration for Sport for the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland; Daniel Crane and Kristin McPhie, who both completed the Ironman Arizona; Michael Malin and his wife, who helped create the garden at Mary Ellen’s Place, a shelter for female veterans in Phoenix; Erin Hertzog, who was praised by judges at the Arizona Court of Appeals after arguing a complicated employment law issue; Gabriel Baca, an M.L.S. candidate who has worked on educational reform and achieved improvements for English learners in California; Aaron Burroughs, who performs magic and juggling shows; and Amanda Grinstead and Jay Jenkins, who got married.

Jose Delgado, who graduated first in the class with a grade point average of 4.06, and received the John S. Armstrong Award, told his classmates about the tough love his “hot-headed Cuban dad” gave him after Delgado blew out his ankle in one of the high school team’s first practices. His father, who was the coach, was short on sympathy.

“Suck it up, Jose,” he said. “Your ankle, it’s a long way from your heart. I expect to see you at practice tomorrow.”

Delgado said he learned a valuable lesson that day: that each new challenge, when placed in the proper perspective, can be a wonderful opportunity for growth. And he said he expects all his classmates will have new challenges and opportunities to grow.

He also thanked his mother for always taking his panicked phone calls.

“Apparently, I will always be a mama’s boy at heart,” he said.

Kyle Riggs, chosen by the class to be the student convocation speaker, regaled the crowd with his list of the “Top 10 Things I Learned in Law School.” Among them:

No. 10: It is never a good idea to hire a comedian with anger issues for Barrister’s Ball; No. 9: If you think a course called “Bridging the Gap” sounds like a waste of time, you’re right. No. 5: It is possible to get higher than a 4.0 GPA in law school. “On a related note, Jose Delgado is a real jerk!” and No. 4: How to be a lawyer! “Just kidding, they don’t teach that in law school.”

He told his fellow graduates to make an impact.

“And remember, if things don’t work out exactly as planned, you can always move back in with your parents.”

Toobin received his bachelor's degree from Harvard College and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn and is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of critically acclaimed best sellers, "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court," and "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court."

He said that Justice O’Connor’s career offers lessons to the graduates.

“When faced with difficult challenges, she found success in engagement with the world,” he said.

She worked where she could, in the Quartermaster Corps when her husband was in Germany with the U.S. Army, setting up her own practice in Phoenix, and volunteering for the Arizona State Hospital, the State Bar of Arizona, the Salvation Army and local schools.

“She was doing good,” Toobin said. “She was doing public service.”

Eventually, Justice O’Connor became a state senator, was appointed to the bench and “the rest, literally, is history,” Toobin said.

He encouraged graduates to volunteer, run for office and help those who need it.

“You can make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Toobin cited studies of women who sought restraining orders that found 83 percent of those with lawyers secured orders, compared to only 32 of those without lawyers. Tenants represented by lawyers were three to 19 times more likely to beat their landlords in eviction cases, if they had a lawyer, he noted. And people facing foreclosure and eviction are dramatically more likely to be able to keep their homes if they have legal representation, Toobin said.

“When Sandra Day O’Connor first became a lawyer here in Phoenix, she did all those kinds of things,” he said. “She volunteered. She helped her neighbors. She got involved in politics. They were the right thing to do, and it’s worth making this point, too: They turned out to be pretty savvy moves.”

More than 65 graduates in the Class of 2013 received pro bono distinction. At a Pro Bono Awards Ceremony earlier in the day, Larry Hammond, an attorney at Osborn Maledon and founder of the Arizona Justice Project, received the Justice For All Award.

Other notable academic distinctions: seven graduated summa cum laude and Order of the Coif, 14 graduated magna cum laude and Order of the Coif, and 27, cum laude. Nine received certificates in Indian Law, and 30 were awarded certificates in Law, Science and Technology.

Several students received special awards: Kyle La Rose was awarded the Mary M. Schroeder Public Interest Prize, Lindsay Rabicoff, the Strouse Prize, and Soo Yun Chang, the Carey/Armstrong Prize for Achievement in Public Service. John R. Becker (Class of 1987), an adjunct professor for the past 20 years, was chosen by the students for the outstanding faculty award.