‘You’ve pushed us to be better teachers, better colleagues, and better humans’

In Last Lecture, Sabi Ardalan stresses the importance of community building

Sabrineh Ardalan

Credit: Martha Stewart

Clinical Professor Sabrineh Ardalan ’02 chose to get personal in the final Last Lecture of the semester. Drawing on her own experiences in life and the law, she stressed the importance of community, especially during a year of shutdown.

Her own third year of law school also happened during a time of crisis, she noted; and the year of 9/11 particularly affected her as a child of immigrants. “The military was deployed not to give out vaccines, but to patrol the streets of major cities to guard against another attack. It was a challenging time and a divisive time, a scary time when everything seemed contingent. But it was also a time when people came together, that in some ways feels like today. Then as now, there was a role for lawyers in working with communities to stand up against racism and discrimination. There was solidarity in speaking up and speaking out, in supporting one another to develop compassion and empathy.”

Ardalan recalled the sense of community that developed in the aftermath. She also had a vivid memory of her own graduation: “I remember most how hard it was raining. It was a torrential downpour; we were all drenched. There was no rain plan that I remember. I remember my mom’s jeans being soaked from the bottom up. But we were all standing in front of Langdell waiting for our diplomas, and we were together. And I would gladly endure being soaking wet if it meant I could be there in person with all of you.”  She wished for an occasion to celebrate in person with her students, “even if it’s with soggy high-fives and hugs all around.”

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“Continue to speak up and stand up against injustice, continue to fight for what you believe in. Keep giving what you do all your heart, as I’ve seen you do these past three years.”

She said she was heartened to see communities strengthen again during the past year, and went on to stress the importance of community building on three levels — as students, with clients, and with friends and family.  She said she was impressed by graduating students’ clinical contributions, with over 90 percent doing at least one clinic, and over half the class doing more than two — some of the most in HLS history. She especially praised students in her own immigration and refugee clinic, singling out two cases from the past year: one a young Ghanaian man who was detained for 16 months, the other a woman who’d been held almost a year. “I remember the first time they each appeared on a call with you via Skype and seeing them through your eyes afterwards when we debriefed. The orange jumpsuits, the cold cells, the inhumanity of it all.”

Her students’ efforts were responsible for getting these immigrants and so many other detainees released, and she noted their equally strong responses to George Floyd’s murder and to anti-Asian violence. “Throughout this past devastating year, you have continued to hold all of us accountable. You’ve pushed us to be better teachers, better colleagues, and better humans.”

On a personal note, Ardalan recalled the strong connections she’s made with her students. During Zoom sessions, she necessarily revealed more of her private life, as both her two-year-old daughter and her cat became fixtures of virtual classes. Many students were also able to introduce their families, friends and roommates. “You’ve been my community through this time, you’ve kept me going. … Through it all you showed such understanding, such flexibility, such grace. It’s not something I’ll forget.”

Such personal moments, she said, are an oft-overlooked key to being a successful lawyer. “Being a lawyer is often about more than the law. It’s about creating a place where people feel safe. It’s about working together as a team. It’s about having dance parties, baby showers, birthday celebrations for clients. It’s about sharing food — I miss the tamales and arepas that our clients used to bring to the clinic space. And it’s about sharing laughter, against the backdrop of endless paperwork, late nights and unforgiving court systems. And it’s about celebrating even the smallest of victories — like successfully filing a form without getting it bounced for clerical reasons.” The outcome of a case, she noted, will sometimes be out of a lawyer’s control. “But we can control how we engage with clients and colleagues along the way.”

This she said was borne out by recent conversations she’d had with some of her previous clients. One client from El Salvador shared that graduating students should remember that: “To your client you are their protector, their hope that they’re not alone. Don’t disappoint them. Remember that sometimes the clients’ experiences don’t make sense according to the books. Here is where empathy should be the key.”

Another from Honduras said: “You have to love what you do. … You have to build trust with [your clients] slowly, by showing that you care. That is how you make them feel heard and valued.” Finally, Ardalan recalled blunt advice from the daughter of a client: “Know the purpose of the job you are doing. Put your clients’ needs first, before you think about how good you’re going to look for doing the job.”

Equally important, she said, are the connections one maintains with family and loved ones.

Confessing that she’s an introvert herself, Ardalan said that building relationships is one of the less celebrated risks that a lawyer needs to take. “I never thought I’d make great friends at law school, or at the firm I ended up at, but I did and that’s what got me through. No matter where you end up, find your people. Figure out who you can be honest with when you’re struggling, who you can rely on to anchor you.”

Ardalan encouraged students to continue showing up for their communities and the people you love. “Continue to speak up and stand up against injustice, continue to fight for what you believe in,” she said. “Keep giving what you do all your heart, as I’ve seen you do these past three years.”

During the Q&A afterward, she was asked to recommend a book and chose one she’d just started reading, “The Book of Joy,” with conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Asked for job-hunting tips, she encouraged students to not be shy about reaching out to their mentors and even to professors they hadn’t worked with. “We remember people for much longer than you think, and it’s such a joy for us to hear from all of you.”

Finally, Ardalan was asked for strategies for dealing with the pandemic, and mentioned the road trips she’d taken with her daughter to nearby farms. “That’s one thing I will take with me from this pandemic. I can be so stressed out about everything going on, but once I’m out in nature, and maybe petting a cute alpaca, it can really change how I think.”