In her address to the Harvard Law School Class of 2019, Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, the 2019 Class Day speaker, drew on experience from her own 25-year career. Kaplan represented Edith Windsor in the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act violated the Constitution. Two years ago, she started her own law firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink, and has co-founded the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit under The KKK Act of 1871 against 24 neo-Nazi and white supremacist leaders for the violence in Charlottesville in August 2017, and successfully challenged the City of Starkville’s refusal to allow a LGBT Pride Parade.
Kaplan told the Class of 2019, “You have the distinction of graduating law school at one of the most unsettled moments in our nation’s history. … Whatever your politics or party, we can agree that our society has become dangerously polarized, and our politics profoundly divisive. The rule of law has taken a beating, and has never looked more tenuous.”
Yet Kaplan warned against becoming cynical. “As lawyers—not to mention lawyers with Harvard degrees—you have a duty to act,” she told students. “As Justice Kagan put it (citing Stan Lee’s “Spiderman,” no less): ‘In this world, with great power there must also come great responsibility.’”
Kaplan urged students to seek opportunities to make the world a better place, even though doing so will require courage and persistence. “This does not require you to abandon the prestigious institutions that many of you are heading to,” she added. “But becoming a great lawyer requires that you be courageous, press boundaries wherever you are, and insist that things can always change for the better, especially now.”
“When you wake up tomorrow, and the next day, persist,” she urged. “As members of the Bar, you will be entrusted with the responsibility to protect the Constitution of the United States. The people who stand the most to lose from the battles raging around us do not have the privilege of being at this ceremony today. They need your help, now more than ever.”
Kaplan had begun her talk by advising students to find colleagues who share their values and “stick close to them.” If you follow my advice, she said, “when the moment demands bravery, you’ll have the support you need to act.” Looking back on her own experience, Kaplan said: “Truth be told it was scary to take a marriage equality case to the Supreme Court and feel the fate of so many Americans resting on my shoulders. It was scary to start a new law firm—and to decide that our very first case would be a lawsuit against two dozen white supremacists who planned the attack in Charlottesville. In making that decision, my colleagues and I not only felt an immense responsibility for our clients, but also for each other’s physical safety and security. But I knew that I would be with people who would have my back no matter what.”
In addition to her own experience, in addressing the Class of 2019, Kaplan also drew on the wisdom of the 18th century Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He taught his followers, said Kaplan: “‘All the world is a very narrow bridge. And the main thing to remember is not to fear at all.’” In closing, Kaplan urged students to be brave and to be true to themselves. “Even if you lose a case, or two, or three along the way, like I did,” she said, “keep on walking across that narrow bridge with as little fear as possible. You are about to enter one of the noblest of professions. Take on clients and causes because you know in your head and in your heart that it’s the right thing to do. As far as I can tell, that is what this crazy condition of being both a human being and a lawyer is all about.”