By Amy Spooner
May 18, 2015
A degree from the University of Michigan Law School presents boundless opportunities—to follow one's passion, to challenge the status quo, and to improve society. During the Senior Day ceremony on May 9, speakers encouraged the graduating class of 356 juris doctor candidates and 46 graduate degree candidates to do all three.
The Senior Day address was delivered by John Sloss, '81, who is a founder and partner of New York-based Sloss Eckhouse LawCo and Cinetic Media. He has executive produced more than 60 films, including the Academy Award-winning The Fog of War and Boys Don't Cry. He also produced the Golden Globe-winning film Boyhood.
Sloss spoke of his journey from an established Wall Street law firm to becoming an entertainment lawyer and ultimately opening his own firm. He admitted that he didn't fully appreciate the rigid training of law school until later, when he put the analytical skills he learned in law school to use doing something he loved. "This tool is astonishingly portable, in that it can be applied to a stunning array of pursuits, in no way limited to the traditional practice of law," he said, noting that his legal training ultimately helped him persuade executives of a multinational corporation to finance Boyhood over a 12-year filming period. "Put your skills to use in service of your passion. Pursuing nontraditional goals is by no means a squandering of your degree's inherent value, but perhaps the fulfillment of it."
When he tried to enter the field of entertainment law, Sloss was told that if he was smart and skilled, the nuances of the field could be learned quickly. "That's validation of the rigor and the way that we were taught at Michigan," he said. "You've been given a gift with this education and this degree, and you have a net that liberates you to keep your eyes open as you move forward, locate your passion, and make it your work."
Faculty speaker Prof. Eve Brensike Primus, '01, encouraged graduates to use the gift of their Michigan degrees to serve people in need. "Many people think that lawyers are a dime a dozen and that there are hundreds of people to whom someone facing a legal problem can turn. While that may be true for some segments of our society, it certainly isn't true for most," she said, harking back to her former career as a public defender. In addition, people in desperate need of counsel in both criminal and civil matters have no access to quality legal representation. "You are uniquely positioned as lawyers to help these people," Primus told the graduates. She challenged each member of the Class of 2015 to assume responsibility for one pro bono case in his or her first year of practice. "Pick one cause, and use your legal skills to help someone less fortunate," she said. "There is no greater professional satisfaction than giving a voice and hope to a person who has never had anyone fight for him." She told graduates not to let fear stop them. "You are graduates of one of the best law schools in the country; you all have the skills and abilities to handle a pro bono case. You just have to make the time to do it." And when you do, she reminded them, the strength of the Michigan network means "that you are never alone."
LLM candidate Rosalind Elphick encouraged her classmates to stay connected to that network despite busy schedules and geographic barriers. "This year has been a precious and unusual opportunity to pause from the hustle of life and really get to know each other," said Elphick, a South Africa native who has accepted a traineeship with the International Court of Justice. "We have looked out for each other despite our incredible differences and have been guided by the principles of tolerance, respect, and inclusivity. If we carry these principles back to our countries and our practices, imagine the world we can create."
JD student speaker Wyatt Fore reflected on graduates' power to shape the law—an idea that crystallized for him while camping out in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in April to hear oral arguments in the DeBoer v. Snyder same-sex marriage case. Thinking of the hundreds of activists and decades of struggle that have led to the current debate illustrates that "law isn't about the problems our ancestors faced, but rather the lessons we draw from those problems and apply to the problems we're facing now," said Fore, who is joining O'Melveny & Myers in Washington, D.C. "The best lawyers are the doers, the organizers, the entrepreneurs, and the problem solvers, and our class is full of those."
For all the lofty hopes for the future, Senior Day 2015 also was about celebrating the present. "Stop right now and soak in the beauty of this occasion," Elphick told the graduates, "and allow yourself to feel really proud of what you have achieved."
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