Elon University - School of Law
School of Law - Elon University

From the Dean...
Elon Law. Class of 2009.

Dean George JohnsonThey have managed a trucking company. They have been journalists and baseball players.  Marine corpsmen and soldiers.  Single parents and social workers. Teachers and political operatives. Restaurant cooks and construction-firm employees.  Paralegals and insurance adjusters. Athletic assistants and haberdashers.  And so many other things. And they have helped to found a law school.

Now these soon-to-be lawyers, who studied at nearly 50 colleges and universities across the country, are poised to join a profession reeling from massive layoffs and adjusting to what may well be new models for rendering its services.  When one adds to those changes the radically altered worldwide economic environment and the new role of governments in the lives of their citizens, one might despair at the prospects for the charter class of Elon University School of Law and other new law graduates across the country. Instead I rather envy them. To be sure, Elon Law graduates confront a world of new and unprecedented challenges. But in those challenges may lie their enormous opportunities and possibilities for leadership and service, and already they have shown themselves fit for the challenge.

When the architects of Elon University’s new law school first conceived of the idea, they reasonably may have assumed that the course and character of this new school would be shaped primarily by its faculty and administrators. They may not have imagined the pivotal role the charter class would play in shaping the school’s future. But shape it they have.

In addition to mastering contracts and international trade, constitutional law and income tax, criminal law and corporations, and other standards in the typical program of American legal education, the 107 students who graduate next Sunday have helped to create the character of Elon Law, and this character, I believe, will be reflected in the professional roles they assume after law school. 

The sheer breadth and variety of their activities have been stunning.  While tackling their courses, they also have created the co-curricular and extra-curricular program of the law school. The Student Bar Association, the law review, the moot court teams, the Women’s Law Association, the Federalist Society, the Black Law Students Association, the Law School Democrats, an organization for gay and lesbian law students, among others, all were conceived and launched by this enterprising and engaged first class.

In addition to establishing these and other law school organizations, they also have contributed their time to community and other civic projects. In fact, members of the charter class have given more than 21,000 hours of volunteer service to organizations, agencies, and community groups across North Carolina.  For instance, they established a chapter of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted death-row inmates.  They formed a tax-assistance program to aid low-income residents of Guilford County, and they have written wills for Habitat-for-Humanity residents. They have organized races and benefits in support of a cure for cancer.  

During their time at Elon Law, some members of this class worked with and advised Action Greensboro about legal procedures to advance the Greenway Project, and two of those students testified before the Greensboro City Council on this matter. Other class members worked with Self Help to explore ways to ameliorate the effects of the foreclosure crisis in North Carolina. Still others assisted Guilford Child Development Center in understanding and implementing new federal governance regulations for the Head Start program. Others worked with Legal Aid in an effort to assist a family in the grips of a serious predatory lending problem.

Finally, in this past academic year, one student, as part of her third-year practice experience, represented a woman whose husband had been killed in the negligent discharge of a gun. As a result of this student’s efforts, the widow was awarded $65,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. In so many observable ways, members of the charter class have taken to heart and put into practice the lawyer’s noble calling to work  pro bono publico.

Their enthusiastic willingness to assume responsibility for establishing these organizations and activities augurs well for the charter class’s future service as professionals. Already they have demonstrated a responsibility to their communities that transcends earning a living. Already they have recognized their responsibility to be civically engaged, their responsibility both to serve and to lead. Service and leadership are two of the founding principles of Elon Law, and our first graduates have embraced those principles with great commitment and, in their so doing, we predict they will continue to work to revive those historic ideals of the legal profession.

But it has not been all work for them. They wisely have managed to carve out some space for fun and recreation.  So, they formed a softball and a basketball team, and in friendly competition with faculty, they put their teachers to shame. They also organized a poker club and made many visits to the libations purveyors of Greensboro. 

Even acknowledging their success so far, we do not pretend it has always been easy for them, or for those of us who teach and lead them. They have had their share of challenges, of incipient rebellions:  why this course and not some other one? Why these requirements? Their pioneering journey has led them to question, to cajole, sometimes to protest the path we might have designed for them. Yet their engagement and their decency have helped us all to negotiate our way to a constantly striving community of teachers and learners. For our-once students and their teachers alike, those negotiations have been real lessons of leadership, lessons that will equip these new graduates to face with courage and equanimity the challenges that await them away from the safe precincts of their law school.

In the end, no amount of praise or fond recollections and reminiscences can obscure or minimize the challenges that await members of this class and their counterparts. The world faces new and daunting economic and social challenges.  Perhaps not since the days of the Great Depression have the economic and social challenges seemed so huge and intractable.  Yet that is why I envy them.  Members of this class will have the opportunity to reshape our society, to lead it to another great era of achievement and prosperity.

In much the same way that Roosevelt called on bright young graduates of the nation’s law schools and other university programs to create and staff the new alphabet agencies of the New Deal, our nation, again in some distress, will need creative men and women who are willing to shoulder the burdens of service and leadership in a cause greater than their own individual self interest. In short, our nation again needs all of them with all of their talent and enthusiasm. Members of the charter class from Elon surely will be among those who answer this new call to service and leadership.

So as our charter class of law graduates leaves the halls of this new legal academy to assume their places in the real world of service and leadership, we congratulate them. We thank them. We welcome them to a profession that looks hopefully for their energy, their enthusiasm, their vitality, their willingness to challenge the status quo. Now we bid them farewell-- our students, our fellow students, our future masters, our adversaries, our new colleagues.

Published in the News & Record of Greensboro, North Carolina – May 17, 2009