Oregon's Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, JD '75, delivers moving commencement address

Ellen Rosenblum speaking during commencement

Oregon’s Attorney General Rosenblum delivered an inspiring commencement address at the 133rdcommencement ceremony on May 18, 2019. 

AG Rosenblum, who is a “double-duck,” received a BS from the UO in 1971 and earned her JD degree in 1975. She has practiced law as an assistant U.S. attorney in Eugene and Portland. Additionally, AG Rosenblum has served as an Oregon district, circuit, and court of appeals judge. In 2012, she made history when she was elected the first woman to serve as Oregon Attorney General.

In her message to the Oregon Law Class of 2019, she talked about how the Class of 2019 is needed now more than ever before to uphold the Rule of Law. She encouraged students to be open to change and unexpected possibilities and concluded her speech by giving thirteen practical thoughts to help students jumpstart their careers.

Below is her commencement address as given. 


MAY 18, 2019

Good afternoon! 

I’m as excited as I am honored to have been invited to speak to you today, on the occasion of the conclusion of your formal training as lawyers and the commencement of your lives in the law. Being an alum of the school, even though I missed out on its wonderful Agate street home, makes this an especially sweet occasion for me and for my husband, who is here today and also graduated from U of O Law a year before I did. 

So, President Schill, Dean Burke, Provost Banavar, faculty and administrators. students, family, friends, and alumni — and most significantly, the 3L, LLM and Masters in Law classes of 2019  — thank you for including me in these festivities and for providing me with the occasion to give renewed thought to what my experiences at the School of Law and, thereafter, a life in the law have meant to me — and how those experiences might provide inspiration on your way forward from this pivotal moment. 

Last Saturday, as I was chatting outside in the beautiful weather with our new neighbors Rose and Karter, I told them I had to go inside to work on a Commencement Speech. Karter, a smart and curious five-year-old, asked what that was. Wow, I thought, this is going to take a little explaining. So, I pretended the back deck was this stage and began speaking extemporaneously.  I told Karter this was a day of great importance in the students’ lives. Then it came to me that I should ask Karter what was most important to him in his life. In words very close to these, he thought for a moment and said: Learning to fix things that are broken.  

Karter had just hit the nail on the head: That’s what we lawyers do. 

Or, as one of my favorite judicial mentors, the beloved Owen Panner, would often say, with great pride, about what gives purpose to our profession: “We are problem solvers.” Karter, age 5, and Judge Panner, who lived to the ripe age of 94, are both so very wise in their own ways.  

You may have thought you’ve spent these past three years studying contracts or tort law or property or family law.  And, while that certainly can’t be denied, I — and Karter and Judge Panner — would say you’ve been in training to become some of the world’s best legal problem solvers, as well.

And now you’ve arrived. Congratulations on this day of hard-earned and well-deserved recognition and achievement.  And thank goodness you’ve arrived. For if our world ever needed creative problem solvers, the time is now.     

In anticipation of today, I was eager to know more about you as a class. What I learned was revealing.  For starters, you’ve come to this law school from 26 states, Washington D.C., and British Columbia. You represent 67 different colleges and universities. Many of you are, like me — that special species of water fowl known as “Double Ducks.”  Twenty-one percent of you identify as students of color. And the women in your ranks outnumber the men, by 53% to 47%.

You speak many languages in addition to English fluently. You’ve been organic farm workers, bankers, carpenters, accountants. You’ve been in medicine and in our Armed Forces. 

These intriguing bits of data are only part of your story. Among you are individuals who have beaten the odds. You’ve overcome poverty, recovered from addiction, escaped violence, and triumphed over serious illness. This is a class that knows and experiences resilience. From your dean, from your teachers, and from your colleagues I’ve learned about your other human qualities: You’re personable. You’re hard working. You’re really, really smart. And yours is a class known to have a wonderful quality of being genuinely hopeful.

This last is vitally important, especially in light of the state of our country today. Let’s face it:  The Rule of Law is under siege. Or, if you think that’s an exaggeration — I don’t — at a minimum, the basic underpinnings of our democracy are being challenged as never before — at least, in my lifetime.  

That is, you’re beginning your professional lives at a time when our country is entering uncharted territory. It is no understatement to say that never have the skills you’ve obtained here at this law school been more necessary to our collective future. Tremendous problems surround us, and I, for one, am genuinely glad and relieved to know you’re about to start helping us solve them.

I say this as someone who came of age, personally and professionally, during the Civil Rights movement, the Viet Nam War, the beginning of the women’s and environmental movements, and Watergate.

Watergate was certainly a fraught moment — but seems to pale by comparison with what we confront today — especially when you consider all the other monumental challenges now before us. You know as well as I the big ones: climate change, gun violence, the rapid growth of economic inequality, the spread of hatred and bigotry, just to name a few.   

As I’ve reflected on the meaning of this day over the past few weeks, certain notions have emerged:

The first is how much, despite being in a profession known to be somewhat change averse, things do change — both as to legal education and lawyering itself.

It’s pretty hard to imagine sometimes, but in many ways the “good old days” were far from good – and they weren’t even that long ago. Not all that long ago, for example, it was considered a waste of resources to train women to be lawyers. 

If you don’t believe that, read about some of the pioneer women lawyers like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was asked by her law dean to explain why she was taking up a seat at Harvard that could have been made available to a man. When I was a student here, my class was the first to have more than 10% women, which it had inched up to by the class of 1974.  Mine, the class of ’75, took a sudden jump to nearly 30%. 

But even with the increase in women (and only a trickle of minorities, by the way) we were still something of a novelty — and were treated as such. We were rarely called on in class, and I was personally warned against applying for certain summer clerkships in smaller Oregon towns. To make things more difficult, there were no full-time female faculty members to look to for guidance or as professional examples. 

I am not by any stretch suggesting that sexism or racism in the law is now over. But here we are, 45 years later. We finally have a female state Attorney General, (YAY!!)  the Oregon Supreme Court has a majority of women justices for the first time ever — and a woman as Chief Justice. I hope you have all met the intrepid Martha Walters. And the soon-to-be-built Happy Valley High School, near Portland, will be named for Adrienne Nelson — who last year became the first African American Justice to sit on either of our appellate courts.  

Similarly, the new demographics of our law school show that true progress on diversity, equity and inclusion are indeed possible — and that all of us are benefitting from this new reality.      

My colleague, New York’s former Attorney General Barbara Underwood, someone I have come to admire, recently spoke about the importance of diverse leadership.        

“That’s one of the most important challenges of our times,” AG Underwood said, “to bring into the courts and the boardrooms and in government, and the academies and all the institutions of our society all the voices – not just token representatives; to hear the voices of the people who are present and those who are not; and to build the bridges that are needed to unite rather than divide our large and diverse state and our even larger and more diverse nation.”  

These words are every bit as important in a less diverse and smaller state like Oregon as they are in New York.

What about the law itself when I was a student? Roe v. Wadewas decided in my 2L year. The year before, a jury handed down the largest plaintiffs’ verdict in history in Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company— the exploding Pinto gas-tank case. These marked the true beginnings of mass support for women’s reproductive freedoms in America and the safety of consumers. 

During this time Oregon adopted all manner of pathbreaking legislation — from our Unlawful Trade Practices Act to the state’s Public Records Law to the Oregon’s pioneering Land Use Law. 

But imagine this, as well: When I was in law school, there were no trial practice clinics here. And no classes in what are now well developed and very important areas of jurisprudence. Domestic violence was not yet even considered a distinct crime from assault and battery and often was not prosecuted as such. Environmental law and Gender Discrimination as fields of legal study were just getting underway. Mediation, now an award-winning area of study at this school, was unheard of as a career — let alone a way to solve a case.   

What is clear is that lawyers and judges have been essential to advancing the law in so many important ways. 

Now it will take a new generation of smart, creative, innovative people like you to take us to the next level — especially as the digital world, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and other threats to our privacy and security take over every space in our lives, from our homes to the workplace and beyond.

In the midst of all of this, what will never change is the moment in time you have been here at the University of Oregon School of Law. My moment at U of O Law included many remarkable teachers. One was my first-year torts professor, who later went on to serve in the state legislature, then served with distinction as Oregon’s Attorney General, became dean of this law school, and, finally, served with even more distinction as a transformational president of this university. Your dean’s chair now bears his name — Dave Frohnmayer. 

More than anyone I studied with here, Dave didn’t just teach about the law. He showed us the policies underlying the law and, more important, how it can be used to improve people’s lives.   

I suspect many of you greet this day with profound uncertainty. Others of you know — or at least think you know — where you’re headed. I honor and respect all of you, and I’m here to tell you from my experience this degree you’re receiving today can be your ticket to just about anywhere. Put a little more dramatically: The destination on the piece of paper Dean Burke is handing you reads quite clearly: “The Sky’s the limit!” 

Of all my suggestions for you today – and there are a few more to come – first and foremost is to remain flexible in your professional career goals — open, that is, to unexpected possibilities. 

Opportunities will come up that you never imagined. The job you thought for sure you would find and be selected for you may not find at all — or, if you do, it may not rise to the level of satisfaction that you hope for. If you can remain flexible and open-minded, your careers are likely to be all the more satisfying. 

When I was in the shoes you wear today, I wanted with all my being to become a public-interest lawyer. I thought I had found my calling over a summer internship at OSPIRG, and hoped to parlay that experience into my first job. 

But I couldn’t find work with any PIRG anywhere, even out-of-state.  So, I chose instead to take a position with a small firm here in Eugene — a firm I’d clerked with — all three partners had graduated six years before from this law school and were developing niche practice areas. Happily, even back then this law school had an emphasis on legal writing (of course now its program is among the best in the country!) and I had learned to write appellate briefs and actually enjoyed oral advocacy. To entice me, this little Eugene firm offered the opportunity to argue some of the cases I’d briefed for them. 

My job with Hammons, Phillips and Jensen, and my stomach-churning visits to Salem to argue cases in my first few years of practice turned out to be a tremendous experience — and even resulted in a significant interpretation by the Oregon Court of Appeals of the then-new Oregon Public Records law. Jensen v. Schiffman,still cited regularly by my office in our public records work,clarified that a closed criminal investigation was not exempt from the disclosure requirements of the Public Records Law.  Incidentally, Jensen was none other than my boss, who was standing in as the plaintiff for the ACLU of Oregon.

By the way, what goes around comes around, and my office is now heading up a study of the hundreds of public-records-law exemptions that have been created since then.      

I also began my practice taking lots of criminal and juvenile court appointments — went to the jail most days after work to meet up with my adult-age clients and spent most days in court learning by trial--and hopefully not too much error.

Out of those experiences came fabulous role models, Including Lane County judges — then the only woman on the bench, Judge Helen Frye, and also wonderful male judges like Ed Leavy, to this day, my all-time favorite. There have been all sorts of unexpected opportunities along the way. 

Most telling is that today I finally have a job that really does focus on consumer protection. So much so that when asked how I describe my job I usually answer that I think of my role as the mother bear protecting her young cubs. 

So, I mean it with all my heart when I tell you the word OPPORTUNITY is written in invisible — but indelible — ink across each of the diplomas you’ll be receiving today. I again urge you: Be open to the possibilities this degree will put in your paths.

My own experiences are also why I know the world will open itself up to you in ways you cannot begin to imagine today — if you do your part and keep pushing forward, while maintaining that resilience and hopefulness you are known for.  

Your legal education puts you in a profession that’s front and center of so much of the life of our state and country. And it gives you a built-in family — your teachers and classmates — you can always draw on.

Spoiler alert: I would be remiss if I did not repeat the importance of that last point: I know not all of you will be practicing in Oregon, but in this modern age, it’s pretty easy to stay connected. There is simply no greater “power center” for you as a practicing lawyer than those who are assembled here today and the alums of this school who are spread out throughout our state and, to a lesser degree, our country and the world at large.  

We all want you to succeed and will do our level best to support you. So, do not wait to reach out – and that includes just about anything you can think of that relates to your new profession. Anything from advice on a case — to the extent ethically proper — to what to wear, to what organizations to join and committees to sign up for, to your next job transition. Some of your best mentors could just as likely be lawyers who are only a few years out of school as the senior partner in the corner office. 

This is what I see when I look back on my career: Every step of the way I have been lifted up by others. Connections developed through this law school, through getting to know judges and litigators, as well as the many and diverse bar activities I have been involved in at the county, state and national levels, have helped determine my course.            

If you make it a point to develop relationships and nurture them, you can do almost anything this new “ticket” allows you to do. 

One thing I have learned is that everyone loves lists. So, I am going to close by giving you one. Here, in no particular order, is a baker’s dozen of practical thoughts to help you jumpstart your careers: 

One. Reputation is everything: Your word is your bond. Related to this: Never disparage another lawyer or judge or mis-cite a case! Instead, be the lawyer judges and opposing counsel trust.

Two. Be flexible and open-minded, and opportunities you may never have imagined will come your way. 

Three. The most successful lawyers are the best-prepared lawyers.

Four. Seek out mentors and be a mentor to others yourself. 

Five. Be a good listener. It’s just as important as being a good talker and a good writer. In this vein, request feedback about your performance on your writing and oral presentations in court.

Six. Words are golden. Be succinct, thorough, and persuasive in your writing. Find yourself a good copy editor. Typos are not OK, even if the result of AutoCorrect. 

Seven. Most jobs in the legal profession involve teamwork these days. Treat job interviews as opportunities to pitch yourself as a team player. 

Eight. Engage in community and public service. 

Nine. Don’t underestimate the importance of networking — inside and outside legal circles. Even introverts can learn to network.

Ten. Take part in the Campaign for Equal Justice. We must support access to justice for all.

Eleven. Join lawyer organizations that will give you chances to develop leadership skills, advance the profession, and, of course, have some fun. 

Twelve. Take care of yourself, starting now! Being a lawyer is hard work. So is studying for the bar.

Thirteen. From this day forward, this law school and its alums are your extended family. Come back for reunions, stay connected, and support it financially when you’re able to. 

So that’s my list for you. I hope I’ve made it abundantly apparent how proud I am to be a lawyer and how excited I am to be able to lend you my support and encouragement as you join this worthy profession and enter the next phases of your careers.

Because yours is a class that is clearly full of prospective leaders, I can’t wait to see how this all plays out — and to visit with you in the future as you embark upon what are sure to be fascinating professional lives.  

Again, it is such an honor to have been present at this special moment.  

I offer you hearty congratulations, and my very best wishes in the years ahead. 

Thank you.

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