Delivering the Call to Honor at Elon Law’s new student convocation, nationally prominent lawyer Robert J. Grey, Jr. underscored for members of the Class of 2017 the importance of law to democracy and justice to the United States.
Grey is a partner with the international law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, vice chair of the firm’s pro bono committee, executive director of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, member of the board of the Legal Services Corporation and past president of the American Bar Association. In introductory remarks, law school dean Luke Bierman described Grey as a great lawyer and a great American.
“Robert Grey’s career reflects a trajectory of service to clients, to community and to self that epitomizes what lawyers should do and what lawyers should be,” Bierman said.
Grey described the opportunity to speak before Elon Law students as a moment he welcomed to reflect on the legal profession’s importance to the future of democracy.
“I want to tell you how practicing law and being a lawyer is a commitment, and that commitment starts now,” Grey said. “You will not find nicer people. You will not find more people committed to social justice. You will not find more people who believe in the ideals of this country. You will not find more people who will park their politics at the door to ensure that justice rings true for all, than you will find in this profession.”
Grey illustrated the importance of law to democratic societies through reference to troubled regions across the globe.
“If you look around the world, and you see problems that other communities and other nations and other states are having, you will see an absence of the rule of law, where judges and lawyers have been marginalized,” Grey said. “Their military or political or religious structure is paramount, but that does not protect individuals, it does not protect their property and that does not ensure liberty. It is the rule of law.”
Addressing the challenges before the nation and world, Grey told members of Elon Law’s Class of 2017 that there has not been a better time to be a lawyer.
“You are here at a very critical moment in the evolution of society,” Grey said. “You are here to make sure that as we go forward as a people, as a nation, that we do so with the highest level of integrity, the highest level of honor and the highest level of commitment to the United States Constitution. How does that start out in the preamble, ‘We the people of the United States, to form a more perfect union, establish justice.’ Justice. That is you. That is what it means to this country, and to its founders, and to its culture and to its future, that justice be a foundation for its existence.”
Reflecting on the importance of the rule of law in the United States, Grey described pivotal moments during the American civil rights era when courageous action by lawyers improved society.
“Even at that time the lawyers who argued those cases new that they were banking on a fair interpretation of the United States Constitution,” Grey said. “That was it. The documents said we are here and that you as a court would ensure that justice will prevail in this land that we live in, and they won. They won and fundamentally changed the way this country operates. I could not and would not be standing here but for them, and for the lawyers, ministers and civic leaders that fought with them – black and white, men and women, every religion you can think of. It was a time when this country saw itself as the beacon of hope for the rest of society.”
Grey focused specifically on efforts in the cause of justice of one of his mentors, Oliver Hill, to demonstrate the importance of central values in the legal profession. Grey said that Hill represented a case that became a formative part of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, and following the decision in that case accepted an invitation to present before a Virginia business community to discuss implementation of school desegregation. Grey said the audience refused to let Hill speak, booing and shouting down Hill’s attempts to speak.
“One person in that audience got up, turned around, went to that stage and said, we invited Oliver Hill here. He is a lawyer in this community and well respected. He deserves to be heard and I would ask your silence as he speaks,” Grey said. “That person was Lewis F. Powell, Jr. who would later sit on the United States Supreme Court and he new that this was an inflection point in this community. He had one person of color to testify on his behalf [at U.S. Senate confirmation hearings spurred by his nomination by President Nixon to the Supreme Court], and that person said I know Louis Powell to be an honorable lawyer and citizen, and he deserves to be confirmed by this Senate, and that was Oliver Hill who sat next to him.”
Grey summarized Hill’s views on the role of the lawyer in society.
“You have been given an unusual credential,” Grey said. “You are in fact those who have been specially trained and prepared in the law. It’s a foundation of our democracy, of our society. Your responsibility is that of a guardian of the Constitution, a trustee of the justice system.”
Concluding his remarks, Grey called on entering law students to represent their clients well, to respect other members of the profession and to do good in the world.
“Whether it is intellectual property, whether it is energy, whether it is securities work, whether it is criminal law, whether it is environmental law, your responsibility is to ensure that justice for those parties is achieved and you do so to the best of your ability with the highest level of integrity and honor,” Grey said. “Respect those on the other side of the table. You will be encouraged to not do that. You will be encouraged to find shortcuts. You will be encouraged to pull the rug out from under your opponent. Don’t do it. This is an honorable profession. You have been given a mantle to become a part of that. Hold it high and represent it well, and always show the highest level of commitment to its principles of respect for others, of integrity and honesty. It will serve you well. You will make a wonderful living practicing law, but you can do so much good in this community, in this state, in this nation and throughout the world.”
Members of Elon Law’s Class of 2017 described Grey’s speech as powerful.
“I was blown away by his stories,” said Josh Bui, reflecting on the courageous actions by lawyers referenced in Grey’s remarks.
“I found myself incredibly moved several times throughout his speech,” said Abigail Seymour.
“He reminded me of the great importance of the work that lies before us,” said Tevin Carr.
The convocation ceremony included presentations by Joel Harter, Associate Chaplain for Protestant Life at Elon University, who offered the invocation; Steven D. House, provost and vice president for academic affairs, who described the talents and dedication of the faculty in their teaching and scholarship; Eric Nelson, president of Elon Law’s Student Bar Association, who welcomed the Class of 2017 on behalf of the student body; and Andrew J. Haile, associate dean for academic affairs at Elon Law, who presided over the presentation of students at the convocation and their expression of commitment to Elon Law’s honor code through signature. The convocation ceremony was followed by a reception hosted by Elon University President Leo M. Lambert who welcomed the class into the Elon University community.