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Senior Day Speakers Remind Michigan Law Graduates to Take Compassion with Them

By Jordan Poll
May 28, 2019

On May 10, Senior Day speakers Michele Coleman Mayes, BA '71, JD '74, and Megan Brown, '19, recounted moments when the compassion of others unexpectedly changed their lives, and urged the graduating class to take the open-mindedness they learned at Michigan with them into their professional careers.

Brown, this year's student speaker, expressed gratitude for the kindness she experienced throughout her time in law school—a critical element that motivated her to achieve new levels of success at Michigan. "We had professors who mentored us, pushed us, and taught us to believe in ourselves. We had alumni who answered our questions, made calls for us, and got us jobs," said Brown. "Mostly, we had each other. One by one, my classmates were there for me when I needed them the most. Every day, we stepped up for one another. We were friends to each other and we sustained each other."

In addition to serving as the first African American editor-in-chief of the Michigan Law Review, Brown was on the board of the Black Law Students Association and sang for The Headnotes and T.J. Hooper and the Learned Hands during all three years of law school. She also was a project manager for the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse and spent her summers interning for Latham & Watkins LLP in Chicago, where she will work as an associate after law school. Brown intends to pursue a career effecting positive change in the pharmaceutical industry through legal and regulatory means, building upon her bachelor's degree in neuroscience from the University of Michigan.

"Inclusion and compassion, as well as all the legal principles I've learned, are what I'm going to take with me," said Brown. "When incentives direct us toward insularity, selfishness, and competition, kindness and generosity are incredible demonstrations of strength."

In her keynote address, Mayes advised graduating students to "keep working" at being compassionate and to not let themselves or their actions be led astray by biases. To do this, she admonished them to "check your baggage." 

"When you walk out of this building, you will shed the label of student. You will don another as a professional," she explained. "But I want to encourage you not to shed the skills that you've honed as a student. I'm talking about being inquisitive, challenging, skeptical, and willing to ask the worthwhile questions. Not because they are easy—they aren't—but because they get answers."

With a long and distinguished career in the public and private sectors—including senior legal positions at Unisys Corporation, Colgate-Palmolive, and Allstate Insurance Company—Mayes knows how easy it can be to fall into a one-way conversation. As vice president, general counsel, and secretary of the nation's largest library system, The New York Public Library, she understands how a fast-paced work environment can lead to snap judgments and labeling of people, so Mayes offered an acronym that she strives to use daily to battle these unconscious behaviors: S-A-L, which stands for "slow down, ask questions, and listen."

"Don't do it only because you were a student at this grand university. Do it because you want to have a more fulfilling life," said Mayes, recipient of the American Bar Association's Margaret Brent Award, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association's Trailblazer Award, and The American Lawyer's Lifetime Achievement award. "While you may opt for a driverless car, I would suggest you don't readily accept a driverless mind. As you go out into the world, I wish you a rewarding journey, and remember to take S-A-L with you."

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