Following a law school experience that was unlike any of the classes before them, the Wake Forest Law graduates of 2020 and 2021 were called upon during this year’s commencement ceremony to remember the unique skills they developed from learning and living through a global pandemic and the nation’s renewed reckoning with race, and to use that knowledge to help advance justice.
“Because of these experiences, you are meeting this moment of historical uncertainty with strengths suited to meet the challenges of the moment: to not just reopen the old world, but to remake it,” said Wake Forest Law Dean Jane Aiken in her opening remarks.
Aiken urged the graduates to remember their deepened appreciation for justice, that they can make transformation happen, and that they already had through the various ways they adapted to the challenges they faced throughout their law school career. She also recalled how the classes of 2020 and 2021 maintained and created community ties at a time when they could no longer rely on having a community emerge just from physically being in it.
“[These skills] are likely to make you more effective, more compassionate, more creative — in short, a better human being and a better lawyer,” said Aiken. “This adversity has forged you into people who can take informed risks, be courageous, have an appetite for meaningful, real, and lasting change. And most of all, you can bear the weight of commencing this new world.”
Wake Forest Law alumnus and North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz (JD ’02) was the distinguished speaker for this year’s commencement ceremony. As the first person in his family to attend college, Dietz earned his bachelor’s degree from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania before attending Wake Forest Law, where he graduated first in his class and served as research editor of the Wake Forest Law Review. After graduating from law school in 2002, Dietz served as a judicial law clerk for judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. District Court in Virginia. He was also a research fellow at Kyushu University in Japan, where he studied comparative and international law issues. He went on to practice at Covington and Burling in Washington, D.C., and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in North Carolina before he was appointed to the court in 2014.
In his remarks, Dietz underscored the ways in which Wake Forest lawyers are particularly well-suited to meet today’s legal needs, and not simply because of their legal skills.
“There’s something about Wake Forest that does more than just train skilled lawyers,” said Dietz. “It’s in the bones of this place. We’re trained to be lawyers with heart, and that’s what we need right now more than ever.”
Dietz recalled how he personally experienced the kindness and compassion of Wake Forest Law students during his time in law school. When Dietz’s mother was diagnosed with cancer while he was a law student, he returned home to be with her. His first week at home, he unexpectedly received a package containing a stack of VHS tapes and another stack of papers. Unbeknownst to him, his classmates had coordinated with one another and the faculty to record each of his classes, photocopy the notes of the students with the best handwriting, and send it all to Dietz in Pennsylvania. The packages continued to arrive every couple of days, and at the end of the semester Dietz, who initially feared he would have to drop out of law school, was instead able to sit for his end of semester exams.
“I imagine a lot of you, hearing this, are not surprised by the kindness of my classmates,” Dietz said.
It is this kind of lawyer that the world needs now more than ever, he told the graduates, as people recover from unemployment and economic instability because of the pandemic, grapple with new technologies, adapt to transformed economies and workplaces, fight for racial justice, and seek to reform the justice system.
“This is our time to show up as the best of what the legal profession — and this is our profession now, this is you — the best of what we represent,” said Dietz. “And what we need most is not just people who show up with legal skills. With all these people in crisis, all these causes that need champions, we need the lawyers with heart, and that’s you.”
Student Bar Association President Hank Niblock (JD ’21) and Professor Rebecca Morrow were also selected by the class of 2021 to address the graduates in recorded remarks.
Morrow reminded the graduates that while faculty members wanted them to understand the content they learned in the classroom and develop their legal skills, they also had another goal in mind: for students to become braver learners and braver lawyers.
“Not only has your success in law school made you braver, more capable of learning new and difficult things, and better able to see that your capabilities exceed your expectations, your bravery is needed,” said Morrow. “It’s not that I want you to feel responsible for having all of the answers — you aren’t — or worse that you have to fake it to make it, you don’t. Instead, I want you to see that you learned something new and very difficult and very valuable, and you can do it again and again.”
Niblock encouraged his classmates to remember their strong legal education and, most importantly, to be themselves when tackling the varied legal issues they will face in their careers.
“Wake Forest lawyers are team players, work together, and help each other,” said Niblock. “You have all the tools necessary, and in a world that is obsessed with bigger and better, you are enough, and you always will be.”
Watch the commencement ceremony, held May 17 at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and remarks from each speaker on the Wake Forest Law 2021 commencement website.
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