Elon Law's Class of 2021 was reminded this month of the ways a legal education can benefit society when students gathered on main campus for a Convocation ceremony that emphasized academic and professional expectations for law students.
A legal education is a pathway to practicing law in the courtroom or helping to finalize corporate transactions in a boardroom, but one of the nation’s top legal educators is equally quick to point to other pathways that a law degree affords students.
Pathways to critical thinking. Pathways to innovative problem solving. And, as Professor Penny J. White of the University of Tennessee College of Law was emphasized to Elon Law’s Class of 2021, pathways to leadership at all levels of society.
White delivered the Call to Honor address on Aug. 8, 2019, when the Class of 2021 gathered in Elon University’s Whitley Auditorium for a Convocation program that each year introduces new students to academic and professional expectations embedded in the culture of Elon Law.
At 148 students, Elon Law’s newest class is the second-largest in school history, and with 30 percent of the class that identifies as students of color – coupled with more than half who come to downtown Greensboro from out of state – it is also the most diverse since the school opened in 2006.
“By choosing to go to law school, and in fact by choosing to be a lawyer, you are taking the first step toward changing your life,” said White, a former justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. “It will be the first step in a remarkable life-altering journey and I predict that it will be fascinating and frightening. It will be remarkable at both extremes – remarkable in it rewards, and at times, remarklable in its unsettling nature.”
Yet there is more to a legal education than simply preparing for the courtroom, White said. A legal education makes students well-rounded critical thinkers who “provide the opportunity for humanity to thrive.”
“If you want to be an engaged, informed citizen, if you want to be an objective, analytical observer, then you’ve chosen well by choosing the law,” she said. “If you desire to develop a more broad perspective of the world and awareness of the issues that face countries and states and nations, then you’ve chosen well by choosing the law.
“If you have a passion for leadership, of working collaboratively, of setting and achieving goals, and if you have a passion for being a part of something bigger than yourself, then you’ve chosen well by choosing the law.”
White’s remarks preceded each member of the class signing his or her name to a poster that displays the four tenets of the university’s Honor Code.
“There will be many times, from now until your hair is the color of mine, where you sign your name on a pleading, on a letter to opposing, on a document for an appellate court or a merger or acquisition for a corporation,” she said. “And each time you do, I hope you reflect back on what it means to sign your name, what it means to pledge, and what it means to commit to honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect.”
Before beginning her distinguished teaching career, White served as a judge at every level of the court system in Tennessee, including the Tennessee Supreme Court, and she today directs the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at the University of Tennessee. She teaches evidence, trial practice, pretrial litigation, negotiations, and clinics, and she lectures around the country at legal and judicial education programs
While at UT, she received the university’s Jefferson Prize for excellence in research and creative activity and has been recognized twice as the law school’s outstanding teacher. The university recently recognized White for her work with a 2019 SEC Faculty Achievement Award. The National Judicial College, where she teaches regularly, has awarded her the Advancement of Justice Award and the V. Robert Payant Award for Teaching Excellence. White has also been awarded the Governor’s Award, the Knoxville Bar Association’s highest honor.
White has published numerous articles on evidence, criminal procedure, and ethics, and she has authored several benchbooks for state court judges. She is most proud of her book on the defense of capital cases, for which she was awarded the Ritchie Award by the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and of her article “Relinquished Responsibilities” in the Harvard Law Review, which addressed the failure of state judges to adhere to important restrictions on political behavior. In 2019, White began serving as a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School.
The morning Convocation ceremony also featured Elon University Provost Steven House – attending his final law school event before concluding his service as provost in September – and Ahmed Mohamed L’19, treasurer of the Student Bar Association. Dean Luke Bierman led the auditorium in applauding House’s longtime support of Elon Law’s focus on experiential learning.
In his remarks to the Class of 2021, House listed the accomplishments of the Elon Law faculty, and he tasked students with getting to know their professors for their professional achievements and dedication to teaching.
“They will stretch you and challenge you more than you thought possible. Embrace this opportunity to work with these outstanding thinkers,” House said. “Our hope for you while you are at Elon is that you will become independent, self-directed learners, and that you will put serious and consistent effort into your studies.”
Mohamed emphasized the responsibility and pride students should nurture throughout their studies. He recounted a story about Professor Steve Friedland explaining a legal concept to three dozen students gathered in the law school commons shortly after a class. Such dedication to teaching illustrated how faculty and staff do their part to help students thrive, he said.
“But it’s not just their responsibility. It’s also our responsibility as students to understand that we need to invest in our success, that nothing will be given to us, that we must earn it,” Mohamed said. “They always say that practicing law is a privilege, and it is – it is not a right. But we must earn everything that we get. Take responsibility for your own success … be present. Take advantage of opportunities. You have that responsibility.”
Students must also be proud of overcoming the struggles that await, he added. Everyone will work and everyone will encounter obstacles along the way. Law school is hard. “Be proud of everything you’re going to do, because this is difficult,” Mohamed said. “Nothing is going to come easy.”
Bierman welcomed students to the program before calling for a moment of silence in memory of Judge Tom Jarrell, the chief judge of the North Carolina District Court in Guilford County who died unexpectedly a few days earlier.
The legal community is close knit, Bierman said, where the loss of one affects everyone. That makes Convocation an important moment in students’ professional journeys.
“This Convocation is part welcome, part rite of passage, and part celebration,” Bierman said. “It is a welcome because today you are embraced in a formal way within the warm ministrations of the legal profession, a noble calling to serve our society, based as it is on the rule of law, and to help people in need. It is a rite of passage because today you leave behind a certain way to look at the world and embrace a new approach and framework for your professional lives. You join Elon and its law school to learn by doing.
“And it is a celebration because we recognize your achievements and your potential as you arrive at Elon Law at a moment in time when we need lawyers trained by Elon more than ever.”