Learn to surf the storm

Lecturer on Law Stephanie Robinson urges students to view the turmoil of social change — ‘the eye of a hurricane’ — as empowering

There were no surfboards in evidence when Stephanie Robinson ’94 delivered the final installment of this year’s Last Lectures. But Robinson, a Harvard Law School lecturer on law and former chief counsel to Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, suggested that soon-to-be Harvard Law School graduates could take some life lessons from the philosophy of that sport.

“We are about to hang ten,” she told the the audience of graduating J.D, LL.M. and S.J.D. students. A surfing enthusiast herself, Robinson focused on the theme of “Surfing the Storm”— noting that while the world may be facing a proverbial hurricane, it’s time to start riding the wave. “The current storm that we find ourselves in can affect us personally and even make us wish that we weren’t alive, or that we lived in a less difficult era,” she said. Yet such storms are a necessary, inherent and even a redemptive part of the legal field. “As you move forward in life and your career, these storms can ultimately bring you blessings between the raindrops.”

Robinson invited the students to see the current era of impending social change as the eye of a hurricane — a point that they may find ominous, but should more properly see as empowering. “Since when in this country has substantial or significant change ever come easy? If you know something that I don’t, please inform me. Because as an African-American woman, I definitely don’t remember getting that memo. And I can guarantee you that [recently appointed Supreme Court Justice] Ketanji Brown Jackson didn’t get it either. She knows a little something now about storms.”

The current storm that we find ourselves in can affect us personally and even make us wish that we weren’t alive, or that we lived in a less difficult era.… As you move forward in life and your career, these storms can ultimately bring you blessings between the raindrops.

Positive social change, Robinson warned, can be messy or even violent — but this too should look like an opportunity. “Maybe we are exactly where we are supposed to be. Isn’t our profession one of service, especially in times like now? Throughout our nation’s history, haven’t we been the ones who are always at the eye of the storm, or at least called in at its most epic moments?” She cited the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and the Civil Rights Amendment as historical markers. “Last time I checked, these documents were not forged in times of serenity, but rather in decades of conflict and turmoil. So maybe we are right where we need to be — tracking the winds of change, finding the eye of the storm.”

She invoked a pair of historical “surfers,” both with local ties, who stood up to storms and moved justice forward in the process. One was John Adams, who faced controversy as a lawyer long before he was elected as the second president of the United States. He defended a British captain and his regiment who were indicted on murder charges in an incident that came to be known as the Boston Massacre. If found guilty they would have faced the death penalty. Committed to the ideal of a fair trial, Adams was one of the few lawyers willing to represent them. Public sentiments were strongly against him, thanks in part to an engraving created by Paul Revere and published in the Boston Gazette, showing the red coated regiment perpetrating the killings of local citizens.

“Adams found himself in quite the revolutionary storm — with vehement opposition, public disfavor and media bias just swirling all around. If Twitter had existed, he would have been cancelled.”

Adams made his case during a six-day trial, and the British officer was ultimately acquitted on the basis of reasonable doubt — the first time that phrase had ever been used by a judge. “This ushered in what is now a lasting principle in criminal law.” It also transformed Adams’ reputation; he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives three months later and president after another quarter century.

The lesson was clear, Robinson said. “Adams had been bold enough, in the face of the ruinous and threatening storm, to stand upon legal principle within its very center, and employ the law within an equitable, appropriate and indelible manner. He did not become the storm; he centered himself on legal principle within its calm, clear eye.”

Moving into the present, she invoked the legal scholar and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson ’85, who faced a literal storm along with a metaphorical one. The occasion was the 2018 opening of his National Memorial for Peace and Justice (often called the National Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama. As Stevenson told an interviewer last year, he was already feeling overwhelmed by the occasion when a rainstorm blew up, just as he was set to address the crowd.

“All of a sudden, I had this awareness that this wasn’t something I should dread,” Robinson quoted him saying. “It didn’t sound like rain hitting the memorial. It sounded like tears being shed by the thousands of Black people whose lives have never been honored. It sounded like they were shedding tears of joy, that there was this moment of reckoning. And that’s the gift I’ve been given.”

Robinson urged the students to likewise think of the most tumultuous moments as gifts — a skill she said was especially necessary in the current political climate. “It’s all about our perspective — how we choose to look at it, to reconcile it, to surf it,” she said.

“Maybe we are the ones best fit to holding America to its democratic principles — to seeing or way through the storm, to setting this whole thing right again,” she said. “And maybe lawyers like John Adams, like Bryan Stevenson, like Ketanji Brown Jackson — and like us — will be the ones to employ our tools, our training, and our ethics, to maintain our position at the clear center of the tempest. And in doing so, we save ourselves from ourselves once more.”