Longtime NAACP Legal Defense Fund leader Elaine R. Jones advised Suffolk University Law School graduates to embrace excellence, cultural differences and diversity as they embark on their legal careers.
“You have a sense of what you don’t know and don’t understand, and it’s up to you to fill that gap,” said Jones, who was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at the Law School ceremony.
Jones, an attorney, is president-emerita and director-counsel-emerita of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. From the time she served with the Peace Corps in Turkey through her long career with the Legal Defense Fund, Jones has been a pioneer in seeking justice for people of color, women and the underprivileged. As a young attorney Jones took on death row cases; she was a counsel of record in Furman v. Georgia, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished the death penalty in 37 states for 12 years. She was the first African-American to serve on the board of governors of the American Bar Association and the first woman to lead the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall. Jones holds degrees from Howard University and the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was the first black woman graduate.
Jones said she hesitated to advise the graduates because “at this stage they know more than I knew when I graduated from law school. I had not had the clinical experience. I hadn’t had one intake interview, one client with any kind of problem. I hadn’t done anything really in the community. And so you are so far ahead of me when I graduated from law school that I have to be careful about what I say to you, but I am going to be brave enough to just make a few practical suggestions.”
“Continue on your journey, this journey of being the best that you can be, she said. “Part of that, is embracing excellence. That’s not something that just the faculty demand; that’s something you must demand of yourself always as you enter the practice.”
She warned the graduates not to be like the “super lawyers” she recently had seen struggling in federal court. “I have never seen a more pitiable display of professional incompetence in my life,” said Jones. “They went into court, disappointed the judge, the jury and everybody–and wasted our dollars. We pay for that. That’s our taxpayers’ dollars … because we are paying all the public officials involved in the case.
“Be prepared. As long as you’re representing someone’s interests in some capacity, you have an obligation to give them your best, always.”
The value of inclusivity
Jones also asked the graduates to value diversity and inclusivity. “That matters,” she said. “With the globalization of the law now, you can’t afford to be insular and cut off and understand only yourself and those who have the same background as you.”
She said that, coming out of an all-African-American environment as a college graduate, she realized that her world was too small. So she went to Turkey with the Peace Corps “to see if I could survive. And that is why we have Turkish doctors walking around today who sound like me, because they learned English with a Southern accent.”
As head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, “Thurgood Marshal’s law firm,” Jones said she could have hired all African-American lawyers, but ‘I needed lawyers on my staff who represented the pot that we melted in, and that’s what I had.”
Sitting around a conference table discussing a case, a white lawyer on her staff could tell colleagues that a certain argument wouldn’t fly with a white jury in the South, she said.
“And it made a difference. Not only the diversity in terms of the staff, but in terms of the cases. The mistake that we make in civil rights law is thinking that our plaintiffs need to be black or Latina or some discriminated against group. That is wrong.”
Legal Defense Fund cases
She related two significant civil rights cases brought for white plaintiffs. In one, a white fast-food manager was fired because his team of workers was “too black.” The district manager had warned him to change his hiring practices, but he didn’t do so because the workers he had hired were qualified and did a good job.
He came to the Legal Defense Fund office, and “I welcomed him with open arms,” said Jones, who sued the fast-food operation. “I have to support him. He’s doing exactly what the law wants him to do; what he’s required to do. He should not be penalized for the civil rights issues that we fight for. We’ve got to protect him. And I tell you, that manager never has to work anywhere else ever again. And last time I checked he’s on a boat somewhere in Florida.”
The Legal Defense Fund also brought to the Supreme Court the first Title VII labor law case, involving a white woman who was denied employment because she was the mother of three pre-school-age children. And with [Justice] Thurgood Marshal writing, in a nine-zip opinion we reversed the lower court,” and the woman got her job, back pay and damages.
“When we helped Mrs. Phillips, we helped every parent, male or female, no matter their gender, no matter their color. We helped everybody who’s got a family and who’s trying to get a job and who’s entitled to it. That’s how we’re supposed to use the law.”
Jones also gave the graduates practical advice about studying for the bar exam and the importance of showing respect to judges, colleagues and the people they meet in everyday life. She advised that personal interests rather than money be the primary consideration in accepting a job.
Student accomplishments & service
President Margaret McKenna said that the example set by Jones shows the graduates what is expected of them and praised them for what they have done as law school students.
“In your time here you have given over 18,000 hours of volunteer legal services,” said McKenna. “There are not many law schools that can say that.”
“I love the fact that you’ve taken on some of the trademark bullies on behalf of small business owners, and you won.
“I love the fact that you have taken on landlords who have discriminated against families that they were trying to evict, and you won.
“Through your work with the New England Innocence project, you fought for the freedom for wrongly convicted prisoners, many of whom have served extremely long sentences, and you won their freedom.”
She recalled her first job after law school in the U.S Department of Justice civil rights division.
“It imprinted me as a lawyer, because I worked in a building called the Department of Justice,” said McKenna, emphasizing the word justice. “And so I went forward in my legal career always believing that lawyers were about justice. No matter who we serve. But our moral compass should always be that.”
McKenna also noted that this is her first commencement as Suffolk’s president.
“The Suffolk community—the Law School community—has welcomed me with open arms. I am so proud to be part of this community and colleagues with all of you.”
The Suffolk University Law School Class of 2016 is made up of 419 new alumni. The University conveyed a total of 2,337 undergraduate and advanced degrees during weekend ceremonies.