After a lifetime of reporting and writing about it, Nina Totenberg nearly called it quits on the modern legal profession.
Where had all the legal lions gone? Where were the role models? Where were the lawyers willing to put their prestige and money on the line to stand by their convictions and commitments?
They seemed like relics from a bygone era until just the past decade, when the legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio witnessed two attorneys stand firm in the face of public backlash — one, a former solicitor general for the Bush administration who stood by his clients despite their unpopular views, and the other, a lawyer deemed a traitor for representing Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur.
At Albany Law School’s 162nd commencement Friday morning, Totenberg urged the graduates to consider more than just money when choosing career paths.
“Of course, a lot of you have loans to pay off and you can hardly pick up a legal newspaper without being half scared to death
about getting a job,” Totenberg said to a sea of maroon-robed graduates and their families at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “But this, too, shall pass. So, I want you for just a moment to think about the long haul — what you can do, what you can be and what matters most.”
Take Paul Clement, she offered as an example, who resigned from his $5 million-a-year job at King & Spaulding LLC after the firm withdrew as counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives. Their job had been to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, an increasingly unpopular federal law critics say discriminates against same-sex couples. But defending unpopular positions is what lawyers do, he said at the time, so he joined a smaller firm and continued to defend DOMA.
“In his resignation letter, he said, ‘I take this step not because of strongly held views about this issue,’ ” recited Totenberg. “ ‘Instead, I resign out of the firmly held belief that a lawyer should not abandon a client because the client’s legal position is extremely unpopular.’ ”
Totenberg offered the graduates another role model, a former acting solicitor general of the United States in the Obama administration who has successfully argued cases on the opposite side of the political aisle. Neal Katyal is probably best known for representing Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s personal driver. He won the historic Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, and was called a traitor because of it.
“ ‘I worry that there is a world out there that doesn’t get this, that demonizes the lawyer for the views of his client, whether that client be an accused terrorist or a government body,’ ” Totenberg recited from remarks Katyal gave at the Supreme Court Institute. “ ‘That is a deep mistake. Our system works best. and indeed can only work, when lawyers know that they can be zealous and yet not confused with their client.’ ”
Totenberg never graduated from college. She dropped out after a few years and began a career in journalism in the late 1960s. Since then, she’s proven herself a distinguished and award-winning legal affairs reporter, particularly when it concerns the U.S. Supreme Court. She has broken numerous high-profile stories, including the sexual harassment allegations lodged against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by law professor Anita Hill in 1991.
She joined NPR in 1975 ,and her reports continue to air regularly on the network’s “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition” programs.
Totenberg actually met Albany Law School President and Dean Penny Andrews in the office of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a few years ago. Andrews, who was named the school’s first-ever female dean last year, helped arrange meetings for Totenberg, who planned to take a trip to South Africa — Andrews’ homeland.
“If you haven’t seen her in action, let me assure you that she is really an awesome whirlwind of energy,” Totenberg said with a chuckle. “Your new dean, your first female dean, I know is already going to bring a new infusion of enthusiasm and commitment to this wonderful law school.”
About 200 students received juris doctor degrees at Friday’s ceremony. Two graduates received a master of law & setters degree.
Totenberg and Justice Karen Peters of the state Supreme Court Appellate Division’s Third Judicial Department received honorary doctorates at the ceremony. New York State Bar Association President Seymour James Jr. received the Dean’s Medal.