Spring 2023 Commencement Celebrates More Than 300 Graduating Students
During a beautiful morning ceremony in Stetson Law’s scenic Plaza Mayor, 302 students celebrated their successful completion of law school. They were surrounded by faculty, Stetson Law staff, family, friends and others who supported them through a uniquely challenging journey.
The event began with a processional featuring bagpipe players, marshals, graduating students, legacies, faculty and members of this year’s platform party, who represented campus and university leadership, faculty, alumni and the Student Bar Association.
When everyone was seated, Executive Vice President and Provost Noel Painter, PhD, greeted those gathered. He commended the class – which consisted of May 2023 graduating students, December 2022 graduates, and students intending to graduate in August of 2023 – for completing over 20,000 hours of pro bono service, advocating for others through clinics and externships, championship-level moot competition performance, and succeeding despite unprecedented challenges.
“All in all, you are well prepared for whatever may be next for you in life and you have much to look forward to,” Painter said.
President Roellke’s Remarks
Noting how the graduating class was the first to enter law school amid a global pandemic and all of the challenges it presented, Stetson University President Christopher F. Roellke, PhD, urged the graduating students to value empathy and kindness alongside the practical knowledge and skills they learned at Stetson Law.
“Here at Stetson, you have learned the law and the skills required to apply it to legal practice with integrity and professionalism,” Roellke said. “Moving forward, I ask that you also bring kindness and empathy to all that you do. As you grow and thrive, I challenge you to help those around to thrive, to offer small acts of kindness and empathy to your clients, partners, institutions and organizations. By practicing these two things, kindness and empathy, you will, indeed, do your part in making the world a better place.”
More words of encouragement from leaders
Kind words followed from Stetson University Board of Trustees Chair Elect Steve Alexander, who told the graduates they are now lifelong members of the Stetson community and urged them to stay connected.
“As a graduate of this university you join a community of alumni that is more than one hundred years old, large, and well established. So stay connected to your Stetson classmates and reach out to your new Stetson colleagues,” he said. “If I have learned anything from my time with Stetson it is the ready-made network out there that can advise and assist.”
On behalf of more than 11,000 Stetson Law alumni, Stetson Lawyers Alumni Association President Mitchell Schermer said while law school was no doubt challenging – full of “sleepless nights, endless studying and preparation, and even a global pandemic” – the students showed resiliency and grit. There was fun sprinkled in, he said with “networking events, social events, and probably too many nights out at O’Maddy’s,” he said, referring to a popular bar and grill nearby in downtown Gulfport. All of these experiences, he said, have helped shaped them into the kind of professional often referred to on campus and beyond as Stetson Lawyers.
“As many of you have undoubtedly heard, there is the concept of what it means to be a Stetson Lawyer,” he said. “To be a Stetson Lawyer means that you will always strive to demonstrate integrity, ethics, competency, and an unwavering commitment to representing the interests of your client. It means to be professional and cordial in the face of those who act otherwise, and to never forget that you are an advocate who represents real people, who come to you with real problems, in their time of greatest need.”
Addressing his classmates, Student Bar Association President Blake Radford remarked on how the Class of 2023 boldly faced the rigors of law school despite unprecedented challenges affecting society at large. As incoming 1Ls, they attended orientation wearing masks. They figured out how to network and gain critical experience while respecting social distancing guidelines. In their final year, as the pandemic waned, he said, they had to deal with two hurricanes.
He urged his fellow graduates to never lose their “fire” or the indomitable spirit that got them through law school despite unprecedented challenges – to bring it with them to professional life.
“Show them what I’ve had the honor of seeing all these years,” Radford said. “That maybe out of all the years prior, this is the class that’s going to change the world. And we’ll change it by working together. By being there for one another. And by never letting anything stop us. Because so long as we have each other, nothing can.”
Wisdom from a seasoned professional
Before the students walked across the stage, they heard from one last speaker, Leslie Caldwell, who delivered the event’s commencement address.
A seasoned white-collar law professional known for leading the federal investigation into Enron and other high-profile cases, Caldwell used her own experience with a shifting career pathway to illustrate the many directions in which one can take a legal career. She, after all, went from working in a large firm to a small firm to a U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn before Robert Mueller – who had just been appointed U.S. Attorney in San Francisco – recruited her to a management position in his office.
“You already have and will continue to develop a body of knowledge and a way of thinking that is mysterious and foreign, and even scary, to most people. And it is those people – many of whom will be perfect strangers – who will be putting their trust in you, putting their most important interests – including sometimes their very futures and lives-squarely into your hands,” Caldwell said. “And that will be the case no matter what area or areas of the law you choose to start off or end up in.”
She concluded her remarks by elaborating on the quote by philosopher John Locke, “Where law ends, tyranny begins,” telling the graduating students that, as lawyers, they are a firewall against tyranny.
“In that role, you are assuming an obligation to do your part to maintain the integrity of our laws, and to protect the rights that the Constitution and other laws at least promise to all of us,” she said. “A big part of that obligation is that we must practice ethically, and operate with honesty and integrity, with our clients, with the courts, and even with our adversaries… If the legal profession were to lose sight of the need for candor and integrity, if the courts were to become or even be seen as advocates for specific agendas, the public rightly would lose confidence in our system. Law would end, and tyranny could begin.”
The students were then called to walk across the stage, one, by one, to accept their diplomas as the exuberant crowd cheered for each new Stetson Lawyer.