As the 2020-21 academic year came to a close, Fordham Law School celebrated the Class of 2021 with both a virtual diploma and awards ceremony on May 23 and an in-person celebration the following day. More than 1,600 people tuned in to watch the live videocast of the virtual 114th diploma ceremony (available for viewing here) and nearly 1,000 people were at the Rose Hill campus on the beautiful morning of May 24.
Commencement celebrations kicked off earlier in the week, on May 20, with a virtual toast by Jennifer Jones Austin ’93, CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. It was a fitting moment because Jones Austin welcomed this year’s graduating class when they first arrived at Fordham Law three years ago.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to come together as a community to reflect and to think about the journey ahead,” Jones Austin said at the virtual empowerment brunch.
“It’s all about taking the skills that you’ve been left to acquire and then using them in ways that benefit yourself, but [also]benefit others,” she advised the students. “Show up in this world with your whole self and bring your everything to it.”
Resilience is a Theme in Speeches by Dean Diller and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton
As the 568 graduates gathered virtually on May 23, Dean Matthew Diller delivered a recorded address acknowledging the importance of community and connection during the pandemic and beyond.
“We have a renewed understanding of how we need to affirmatively nurture, build, and treasure our connections and attachments to each other,” Diller said.
Diller told the Class of 2021 that forging relationships—not only with each other, but with clients, co-workers, colleagues, and even adversaries as well—will become the building blocks of their future practices. Those contacts and connections, in turn, will become the “currency of work”—from negotiating with counterparties to making appearances in the courts and tribunals where disputes are adjudicated.
Diller also acknowledged that the current moment urges graduates to reflect upon how they will work to address inequality and the deep fissures in society: “Whether you choose government service, public interest work, a small or big firm, whether you practice criminal law, or corporate law, constitutional law or commercial law, you can and you will make a difference every day with your legal skills and talents and you can work to ensure fair access to our legal system and our democratic processes and institutions.”
Professor Catherine Powell introduced this year’s distinguished commencement speaker and recipient of Fordham University’s honorary Doctor of Laws degree, former United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Powell worked closely with Secretary Clinton in the Obama Administration as a member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff.
Secretary Clinton spoke to the graduating class’ adaptability, noting that their resilience and the bonds they have built with classmates over the past 14 months will be two of their biggest professional assets moving forward.
“We’ve seen our democratic institutions tested, hugely consequential elections, and a long-overdue reckoning with racism on top of a pandemic,” Secretary Clinton said. “These last few years, therefore, have cast a bright light on pressing legal issues like constitutional law, free speech, digital privacy, human rights, criminal justice, voting rights, and much more.”
“So all of this makes your graduation from law school an extraordinary accomplishment,” she continued. “And in ordinary times that would be true, but given where we are today, it’s even more remarkable.”
Following the speeches, a series of awards were presented to faculty and students.
Diller bestowed the Dean’s Medal of Recognition upon Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Linda Sugin in recognition of her impact at the Law School in this role over the past four years. Some of Dean Sugin’s most notable accomplishments include navigating the pandemic and the move from in-person to virtual learning, launching the Fordham Law’s signature professionalism programs—the peer mentorship program and the 1L house system—and rethinking orientation.
Sugin remarked on how Fordham Law has been her home for more than 25 years, commending her colleagues and the hundreds of students she has worked with. “As you go out into the world, I know you will bring with you the optimism and resilience that has gotten you to this wonderful milestone,” she said. “I know you will bring the dedication to justice that has sustained you while you’ve been here.”
Student Bar Association (SBA) President Megan Negron ’21 presented the Teacher of the Year Award, which is selected based on student nominations. The award was given to Professor Clare Huntington, who received a record number of nominations by students. Negron praised Huntington for her dedication to the students, both inside and outside the classroom, as she worked endless hours to reopen the Law School during the pandemic.
Negron added, “She truly is the kind of role model and supporters students are lucky enough to have helped shape their law school career.”
In her acceptance speech, Huntington echoed Dean Diller’s sentiments on the importance of relationships.
“Invest in your careers, but also be sure to invest in your relationships with your families of origin, with your families of choice, with your friends, with your colleagues, and with people in your community,” Huntington advised the graduates. “This is what will matter.”
SBA Vice President Cristina Lombardi ’21 presented the award for Adjunct Teacher of the Year to Director of Professionalism and Special Projects Jordana Alter Confino. Confino has curated multiple important professionalism, mental health, and wellness programs for Fordham Law students in the last two years and counting.
“It is through empathy and mutual respect and support—not competition—that you will reach the pinnacle of success,” Confino said. “It is your courage to push yourselves outside your comfort zones, trusting that you are defined not by your mistakes, your failures, or even your achievements, but rather by everything that you learn from them along the way.”
“Finally, it is your commitment to run your own race, forging a path that is authentic to you and helping to build a life and a society that reflects your values,” she continued. “It is those attributes, Class of 2021, that make me most proud of you and most honored to be a member of this exceptional Fordham Law community.”
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Diversity Kimathi Gordon-Somers followed Confino, presenting awards to more than 25 graduates for their academic achievements, public service, and moot court victories.
Dean Gordon-Somers also conferred the Eugene J. Keefe Award for service to Fordham Law School upon Lombardi. In his remarks, Gordon-Somers praised Lombardi as a leader in the Fordham Law community, having shown both dedication and commitment to her classmates and for making the Law School better during her time as a student.
“Through her work, she has certainly moved us in the right direction,” he said, “and it has been my honor to work with her over the past 18 months.”
“I’m grateful to have studied in the atmosphere that Fordham Law creates—not just the substance and procedures that we’ve been taught, but the messages which have been provided to us about becoming a true professional,” Lombardi said upon accepting the award and quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I believe that Fordham has given us the opportunity to become and be true professionals, to stay curious, to be active, giving engaged members of our community, and to use our education to find meaning in our professional lives by helping others, by helping each other.”
Faculty members recorded a video offering their best wishes and words of wisdom to the graduates, including a heartfelt poetic sendoff from the clinic faculty. A video compilation of graduating students followed with reflections on their memories of their time at Fordham Law.
Following the montage, the names of all 568 graduates were announced.
Graduates Gather In-Person at Rose Hill
The virtual ceremony was followed on May 24 with an in-person commencement event at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.
Students and loved ones gathered on the lawn at Edward’s Parade for a joyous celebration on the balmy spring day. For many of the students, it was the first time seeing one another in more than a year.
Addressing the graduates, Dean Diller could not suppress his excitement over the in-person gathering. “I have to say on my own behalf, I am so excited to see each and every one of you here today. You look fantastic,” he said. “It’s extra special to be able to gather today under these circumstances, to celebrate your achievements and your accomplishments.”
Diller shared invaluable advice from Dean Emeritus John Feerick, who was celebrating the 60th anniversary of his graduation from Fordham Law this year.
Diller read a passage from Feerick’s memoir That Further Shore, titled “Letter to My Grandchildren,” and noted that Dean Feerick’s wisdom on living an ethical, moral, and positive life is valuable to all those who hear and read it.
“Go about your life honestly, ethically, and morally. It’s wonderful to be a role model of probity, but it’s not always easy to know what to do when you see so much bad behavior around you. Sometimes you may get suffocated by it,” said Diller in reading Feerick’s words. “Find a way to remove yourself from such suffocation, protect who you are, and move on with your life. Making choices is at times very difficult. Draw into such moments your loved ones and friends for their guidance, wisdom, and help.”
Diller was followed by Professor Olivier Sylvain—director of the McGannon Center for Communications Research, academic director of the Center for Law and Information Policy, and a research affiliate at the Center on Race, Law and Justice—who was chosen by the Class of 2021 as the day’s speaker.
“You are the authors of the future. You are the authorities,” Sylvain told the graduates. “The guidebook for making the world a better place is always getting rewritten. And I can’t think of a class that has had more of an impact on this guidebook than yours.”
Following Professor Sylvain’s speech, Assistant Dean of International and Non-J.D. Programs Toni M. Jaeger-Fine and Dean Sugin called the names of those present to receive their degrees.
The graduates lined up and walked across the stage with beaming smiles showing from mask-free faces. As they were handed their diplomas, students bumped elbows with the Dean, yet another new tradition to emerge from the pandemic.