Rutgers School of Law Commencement Address
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Friday, May 27, 2011
Graduates of 2011, Dean Farmer, faculty, distinguished guests, family, and friends: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
When I started law school here at Rutgers in 1973, I had never met a lawyer. I was as green as they come—really clueless about a world in which smart people changed the world. I didn’t know what to expect.
My first class was a small one – about 20 of us sitting around a seminar room table, stone quiet. With no fanfare, Professor John Lowenthal strode to the front of the room, pulled out his pocket watch, and stared at it silently. At exactly the moment the class was scheduled to begin, Professor Lowenthal looked up and, without any sort of introduction at all, said, “What is assumpsit? Miss Abramson?”
Assumpsit? I had no clue what the word meant—or why this man would ask such a bizarre question. Neither did Miss Abramson. In a moment of panic, I thought, “I’m in the wrong room!” But I glanced at the book of the person sitting next to me—Pat Nachtigal—and I saw that she had the same book open to the same page. A quick look around the table reassured me that we all had the same book. Always good at deductive logic, I thought, “Ah, he is in the wrong room! He must be teaching some other class.” I relaxed a little and smiled slightly at his mistake.
After a long, silent pause while Ms. Abramson squirmed, Professor Lowenthal gave her one last, withering look, then said, “What is assumpsit? Mr. Barnes?” My brain went numb—as if it had just sucked in large quantities of Novocain—as it refused to consider the obvious: If the man has a class list, he’s in the right place. I thought: “Lizzie, this is something you are supposed to know.”
This was looking bad.
Lowenthal got no answer from Barnes, but he didn’t relent. As he bore down, I suddenly had a deliciously happy thought: My last name began with W. At least by the time I was to walk the plank, everyone else would have already fallen overboard.
After a couple of rounds of student silence, the professor asked the next victim—student—if he had read the assignment, Hawkins v. McGee. The student said yes, and Professor Lowenthal asked the student to read aloud the first word in the case. It was “assumpsit.” Huh. Who knew you were supposed to read all the words? And look up the ones you didn’t know. Bad was getting worse.
As the professor ground through the students with obviously increasing irritation, he hit upon Nancy Newman. When he fired off, “What is assumpsit?,” Nancy fired back: Assumpsit is a common law form of action blah blah blah. I don’t remember what she said. I couldn’t really follow it, but Lowenthal was in. For the remainder of the hour, it was the John-and-Nancy show. And I felt worse than ever.
I was so rattled that I left class and thought seriously about going directly home, not even staying for my second class, Torts with Professor Carter. I had been a good student all my life, and I’d never felt like I couldn’t manage what was asked of me—until today. I stood there in the hallway, and I went back over it. Once I got past my own fright, the lesson was pretty straightforward: Read all the words and look up what you don’t know. And then the second lesson slowly took shape: Pull up your socks and do what needs to be done. That’s what people do who plan to make things happen. So that’s what I did.
I foundered, and I struggled, and sometimes I thought I was drowning. But I eventually got the hang of it.
Rutgers Law taught me good thinking skills. It gave me a terrific credential—a law degree. But most of all, it took an unsure kid, married at nineteen and now with a baby on her hip, and put me to the test to figure out who I was and what I could do. Law school opened a thousand doors for me.
Rutgers opens doors. Students come here from different backgrounds and have different experiences here, but one way or another, this place opens doors.
Today, the doors are open for you. When you leave here, J.D. in hand, you will face an astonishing range of opportunities. Some doors are open because you have specific knowledge—you know some law and law is a powerful tool. More doors are open because you know how to think—you have a lot of highly-developed analytical and problem-solving skills. And even more are open because you know who you are and, when pressed, what you can do.
I want to plant another thought. Now that doors are open to you, you can open doors for others. You have the tools to effect change in institutions and in our country. You can play a meaningful role in this country’s future. You can use your degree to practice law—big firm, small firm or in-house counsel, prosecutor, public defender, or public servant. You can teach, high school, college, or law school. You can contribute to a brief or write an op-ed. You can run for office. You can run a business, run a non-profit or run a campaign. The doors are open.
I ran through a door labeled teaching and research. I studied the economics of America’s families. From World War II until the early 1970s, our middle class expanded and flourished. As the economy grew, wages in this country also rose steadily. Savings increased, debt was small, and “middle class” became synonymous with “economic security.” Parents expected—rightly expected—their children to do better than they had. But changes were in the wind. Starting in the 1970s, men’s incomes flatlined. Married couples managed to push household income up only if they sent a second worker into the workforce. To make ends meet and to bridge the widening gap between income and expenses – like ever-increasing mortgage and health care costs — middle class families reduced their savings and took on far more debt.
In the 1980s, as debt loads grew, the laws governing those debts shifted, making consumer debt a much riskier undertaking. Over time, consumer loans changed. Prices were hidden, and risks were impossible to assess. Simple mortgages and credit card contracts morphed from simple agreements into pages and pages of fine print, and terms like penalty re-pricing, universal default, teaser rates, and liar loans made it into our national vocabulary. And it all came crashing down around just when you entered law school—September 2008. None of us should forget that time.
Nearly three years later, we stand at a crossroad. Some people are satisfied with the idea that the world has changed and now it is simply a more dangerous place, with a few big-time winners and all the rest of us left hanging around the margins, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Others see it differently. We believe that change is possible and that, working together, we can do better—better for ourselves and better for our country.
Last year, Congress passed into law a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This little government agency has the opportunity to make consumer financial markets work better for families, better for responsible lenders, and better for the economy as a whole. This agency is built on the faith that when the rules are fair, when anyone can see prices and risks up front and when fine print can’t be used to hide nasty surprises, then we have the chance to build stronger families and a stronger America.
I’m proud to note that Rutgers alums have been part of that more optimistic vision of America. Senator Menendez, my fellow Rutgers Law alumnus who is here today, was a leader in rejecting the idea we should accept a world in which only the powerful win. He helped kick open a big door that will permit us to help improve economic security for millions of families here in New Jersey and across the country. So I can’t resist the opportunity to thank him personally and publicly, and to wish his family congratulations for their own graduate today.
My law degree opened a thousand doors for me – a young mother from Oklahoma who had never met a lawyer. Through the years, I’ve tried to use what I learned here to kick open a few doors myself. And through the course of your career, you will have the chance to do the same.
If you want confirmation that I’m a convert to the business of opening doors and the importance of learning what is possible, just ask my former student, Chrystin Ondersma, who is now one of your teachers and who is sitting right over there. Chrystin will tell you from first-hand experience that even now on the first day of contract law, I breeze into the classroom at the last minute, toss my books on the podium, and look up and say, “What is assumpsit?” The students still don’t know, but somewhere along the way they learn a lot.
To the class of 2011, congratulations and good luck. May you find happiness and success as you open more doors.