'Stare Risk in the Face. Stare Fear in the Face.'

Attorney Joshua Koskoff, who won historic settlements for victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, urges Suffolk University Law School graduates to avoid taking the off-ramps of life
Attorney Josh Koskoff, JD ’94 giving his commencement speech
As human beings, attorney Josh Koskoff told the Class of 2024, "we're wired to be risk averse, to take shortcuts, to give up. In your legal careers, you are going to be faced with a lot of these moments. But once you learn to live with some losses and imperfection, you can get through that. And then you can go out and stare risk in the face . . . and become the lawyers and people you want to be."

Joshua Koskoff, JD ’94, walked to the stage of the Leader Bank Pavilion wearing bracelets given to him by the families of children killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, which, he noted, took place almost exactly two years ago.

Koskoff, who now represents some of those same Uvalde families, won an historic $73 million judgment on behalf of nine families whose children were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. It was the first and only settlement against a gun manufacturer for a mass shooting in American history.

In his keynote speech at the Suffolk University Law School Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 19, Koskoff told the Class of 2024 the story of how those bracelets came to be around his wrists, how he gained confidence over the years to fight back his early fear of failure and to stare down the kind of risk that can come with being an attorney.

Koskoff was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the ceremony.

Don’t take the off-ramps in life

Though lawyering was a tradition in his family—his father and grandfather were both legendary trial attorneys—Koskoff said he was scared of joining the profession and instead moved to New York after college and took a job as a waiter. “I was trying to think of how not to become a lawyer, and risk the chance of torpedoing the family name and the family firm,” he told the students.

After strong urging from his father, he applied to Suffolk Law, where his grandfather, Ted Koskoff, had earned an honorary degree in 1980. When his mother later called to tell him he received a package from Suffolk, Koskoff was convinced there had been some kind of mistake.

“But I did get into Suffolk,” he said. “And had that not happened, I wouldn’t have been a lawyer. And if I wasn’t a lawyer, of course, I wouldn’t be standing here. And if Suffolk hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t be wearing these bracelets of the children down in Uvalde. And it’s funny, how little things like that end up defining you and your career.”

Early in his career, after a string of losses in court, Koskoff was questioning whether he should leave the field altogether. “I felt like I was on the razor’s edge,” he said. In one malpractice case that he was initially trying to withdraw from because of his fears, he ultimately faced his self-doubt.

“I was trying to take an off-ramp—and you can never get to your true north if you keep taking off-ramps,” he said. When the verdict came in on the case that he’d thought about dropping, it turned out to be the highest verdict in the history of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

When the Sandy Hook families first approached Koskoff for legal help, he again questioned whether he was up to the task. “I realized I was looking for a lot of these off-ramps, but I had to keep steering back onto the roadway.”

Koskoff told the graduates to not shy away from risk. “We’re wired to be risk averse. We’re wired to take shortcuts. We’re wired to give up, and your legal careers are going to be faced with a lot of these moments where you might be offered a settlement that you know is not enough, but you’re worried about losing.”

The key, he said, is learning to live with some losses and imperfection. “When you go into your legal careers,” if you can overcome your fear of those things, “you will bury them, and you will be the lawyers and the people that you want to be.”

Download video transcript [PDF]

Choosing hope over despair

In her remarks, President Marisa Kelly pointed to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s new book Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life, which makes a powerful case for hope, in spite of what Kristof calls “a planet in despair.”

The Suffolk Law Class of 2024 offers myriad reasons to be hopeful, Kelly argued, noting that the graduating class had fought through the pandemic, not to turn inward, but instead to embrace tireless public service.

Suffolk Law students performed more than 66,000 hours of free legal work through clinical programs and externships at district attorneys’ offices, legal services organizations, government agencies, courthouses, and law firms, she said, estimating the value of that work at $5.8 million dollars.

Through the Law School’s Prosecutors Clinic, she said, students served Massachusetts communities with their work in 18 trial courts for five district attorneys and the Massachusetts attorney general, representing communities in all stages of criminal prosecution.

And students in the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic took on major challenges, from forever chemicals in the water to solid-waste disposal improvements, she added.

“You will continue to negotiate a challenging and changing world with positive solutions, and you will continue to be a powerful force for good,” she said. “And that is an incredible reason to be hopeful.”

Annabelle Hentz giving her commencement speech
"It is our time!" student speaker Annabelle Hentz told the Class of 2024. "Our time to rise, our time to be the advocates, our time to be the champions, our time to enact meaningful change within the legal realm, fostering an environment characterized by integrity, innovation, and ethical excellence."

A great lawyer is also 'confidant, supporter, and champion'

In her remarks, Law School student speaker Annabelle Hentz said that being a good attorney goes well beyond book learning. Hentz’s attorney-father passed away when she was 18 years old, and she still recalls the large number of his clients who attended the funeral. “To them, he was not just their lawyer, but their confidant, their advocate, their supporter— their champion. At that defining moment I knew being a lawyer exceeded any mental image, movie character, or tasteless joke I had heard before,” she said.

What she realized was that lawyers have the capacity not only to influence individual lives, but also to “initiate transformations that resonate throughout the broader fabric of society.”

Hentz said that in the same way that her father had been his clients’ confidant, supporter, and champion, Suffolk Law had played all of those roles for the graduating class—pushing students steadily toward excellence and offering them an opportunity to serve clients who needed representation the most, “from young people facing juvenile delinquency hearings from school to investigating wrongful convictions with the New England Innocence Project.”

Hentz served as executive editor of Suffolk Law’s Journal of High Technology Law and as a student attorney in the Law School’s Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Clinic.

Download video transcript [PDF]

'The world is more complicated than it is simple'

A legal education teaches many things, Suffolk Law Dean Andrew Perlman told the Class of 2024. But in “a world that is increasingly defined by what divides us rather than what unites us,” he said, perhaps the most valuable skill is the ability “to appreciate that there are many sides to an issue. The world is sometimes painted in shades of gray rather than in the black-and-white pictures that we often imagine.”

To better address polarization—those black-and-white pictures—discussion of difficult issues requires nuance, he said. “Even more important than the skills of advocating and arguing are the skills of listening and learning,” he said. While members of the graduating class might be eager to test their expertise in legal argumentation, he urged them to focus more on what others are saying. “We need to listen more than we speak. To understand more than we demonize. To appreciate that the world is more complicated than it is simple,” Perlman said.

“If you engage with an open heart and mind with those whose views you oppose, I am confident that you will not only be more effective lawyers and advocates for your chosen causes, but you will be better friends, family members, partners, citizens and human beings,” he said.

About Joshua Koskoff

Attorney Joshua Koskoff, JD ’94, specializes in medical malpractice, wrongful death and other complex personal injury and public interest cases in Connecticut and is a member of the Suffolk Law Dean’s Cabinet.

In 2014, Koskoff filed a landmark case against firearms manufacturer Remington, the company that made and marketed the AR-15 weapon used in the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. Initially given little chance to succeed by legal experts, Koskoff was able to find a way through the federal immunity enjoyed by the firearms industry, ultimately winning a settlement of $73 million dollars— the first time in American history that a firearms company has been held to account for a mass shooting.

Koskoff—along with two partners at his firm of Koskoff, Koskoff, and Bieder—also represented Sandy Hook families against Alex Jones, the controversial InfoWars founder who claimed that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged and the grieving families were actors. In October 2022, Koskoff and his team obtained a verdict totaling close to $1.5 billion against Jones—the largest verdict in Connecticut history and the largest defamation verdict in American history. Since then, he has advised or represented those touched by mass shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada; Uvalde, Texas; Highland Park, Illinois; and Lewiston, Maine.

Koskoff holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Syracuse University and a law degree from Suffolk University.

Commencement 2024

Suffolk University Law School Class of 2024 comprises 438 new alumni, with 408 JD degrees and 49 graduate law degrees awarded (with some students receiving both).

The ceremony was one of three Suffolk Commencements held on Sunday, May 19, at Boston’s Leader Bank Pavilion. The University conferred a total of 2,013 undergraduate and advanced degrees to graduates from 39 states and 75 different countries. Twenty-eight percent of Suffolk’s 990 undergraduate degree recipients are first-generation college students.

Read More About Commencement 2024.


Michael Fisch
Office of Public Affairs

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs