Deeming the Class of 2023—most of whom began law school on Zoom during the height of the pandemic—as determined doesn’t scratch the surface, noted speakers at Michigan Law’s Senior Day. The annual celebration of graduating students took place on May 5 at Hill Auditorium.
Bridget Mary McCormack, president and CEO of the American Arbitration Association and former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, addressed the graduating class with excitement and a call to action.
“You're here just in time. We have some sticky problems that need your attention.”
McCormack—who, as chief justice during the pandemic spearheaded efforts to make courts more accessible during the public health emergency and beyond—emphasized the importance of accessible legal assistance. She noted studies that show low-income people have inadequate or no legal help in civil cases in state courts; it is uncommon, if not rare, for both parties in civil cases to have lawyers; and the United States ranks poorly among other countries on the accessibility and affordability of civil justice.
“A lot of other countries do justice better than we do,” she said. “The traditional idea of our justice system—the one we see on TV and teach in our law schools, where both parties are represented by lawyers who present evidence and make legal arguments for their clients—is fiction in the vast majority of civil cases in the United States today.”
Despite the statistics, McCormack expressed optimism that the recent graduates of Michigan Law, who include 310 JD students, 24 graduate (LLM) students, and one doctoral student, can help drive change. She noted that they are keenly familiar with the challenges the past few years have posed to individuals in our country, and many sought their legal education as a result.
Student speaker Alanna Autler, ’23, is just one example. She addressed the trials the class went through while navigating law school under less-than-typical conditions.
“That first year, we faced loneliness, doubt, and the fear of infecting our loved ones with Covid. It was brutal, and yet we survived,” Autler said. “We made the best of it through every means possible: through virtual lunch talks, by eating out on the Quad when it was freezing cold, even, dare I say, through Slack—God love it. That’s how we got to know each other in the first place, that’s where we vented, and that’s where we cheered each other up after particularly bad cold calls. We made it work. What made that year bearable was each other.”
Alongside the height of the pandemic, Autler noted that the political landscape was undergoing severe changes. She saluted her classmates for the hard work and perseverance they have dedicated to the community around them for the past few years, specifically noting the recent approval of Proposal 3, enshrining reproductive freedom in the Michigan Constitution.
“Leading up to the 2020 election [and continuing through the November 2022 midterms], so many of you volunteered, registered voters, and worked the polls from here to Detroit. This is a class that doesn’t wait for change, it makes change,” she said. “[...] Your gift is that no matter what you’re handed, you take it and make it better. You care about the world, but you also care about each other.”
Autler posited that her daughter, Beckley—whom she welcomed at the tail end of her 1L year—received a law education along with her, saying, “The only world she’s ever known is one where it’s natural to do the right thing.”
Collective action, a sentiment McCormack stressed as imperative for the future of law, is something the 2023 graduates had no choice but to master.
“You've grown up in a world that's more connected, diverse, and technologically advanced than any previous generation,” McCormack said. “Of course, that's true for every generation, but you have the confidence to challenge the status quo and the tools to scale your ideas. You've developed collective action muscle, perhaps as a result of the adversity you have all faced and witnessed through your formative educational years.”
She underscored her confidence in the recent graduates by encouraging them to continue what they have already begun to accomplish.
“Law is created by humans who were and are flawed and biased, and if the substantive rule of law isn't up for the challenges we face, please change it,” McCormack said. “[...] Then, together—all of you collectively—show us a better way for the rule of law. I'm so glad you're here.”