By Andrew Cohen
Berkeley Law’s Class of 2021 likely faced more adversity than any other, given the COVID-19 pandemic’s far-reaching effects and how it wreaked havoc with their law school experience.
For many of them who packed Chevron Auditorium in UC Berkeley’s International House Tuesday afternoon, it seemed celebrating an enormous achievement — passing the July California Bar Exam — took a backseat to reconnecting in person.
“Taking the Attorney’s Oath was certainly meaningful and the culmination of a lot of hard work, but nothing could top the chance to talk with so many classmates I hadn’t seen in over a year and a half,” Dave Blum ’21 said. “I cannot overstate how wonderful it was to see one another in the same place.”
“Having spent almost half of our law school careers online, it was almost unreal to gather with classmates,” Jessica Williams ’21 said of the ceremony and ensuing reception. “I think if we had been able to see each other’s entire face, there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the house.”
After praising the recent grads for “passing the hardest bar exam in the United States,” Dean Erwin Chemerinsky noted that they were second-year students in March 2020 when the pandemic forced Berkeley Law to postpone in-person classes and transition to online instruction for the rest of their legal studies.
“To bring you together here to celebrate this occasion does feel very special,” he said. “Another reason this feels very special can be captured in a single number: 95.4%. While the pass rate for the July California Bar Exam was 52.6% overall and 70% for first-time takers, for Berkeley Law the first-time pass rate was 95.4% — the highest of any law school in California.”
“I have a ton of pride for both of my classmates and Berkeley Law as a whole for the outstanding bar pass rate,” Blum said. “However, I’m not surprised. I couldn’t believe how intelligent, caring, and hard-working my classmates were … Now that the bar is out of the way for so many of my classmates, I can’t wait to see what they do in the legal field.”
Words of wisdom
The audience heard remarks from Berkeley Law Alumni Association President Carly Alameda ’06, California Court of Appeal (1st District) Associate Justice Jon Streeter ’81, and U.S. District Court (Northern District of California) Senior Judge Claudia Wilken ’75. Streeter gave the licensing oath for admission to the state bar, and Wilken the licensing oath for admission to her federal district court.
Alameda, a partner at Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco, described the surging momentum for alumni involvement with the school and the emergence of official regional chapters in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.
“I’ve only become more proud and more grateful to have started my career here at Berkeley Law,” she said. “I think it’s something you appreciate when you’re in it, but appreciate more and more every year when you realize the foundation this place gave you. I really encourage you to take the time and make the effort to stay engaged with this community, with your classmates, and with the law school.”
Streeter, who recently celebrated his 40th reunion, did not mince words about what lies ahead.
“I can honestly say without exaggeration that your generation faces challenges as great literally since the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln,” he added. “You will not meet these challenges alone … but at some point you must finish and you must lead on your own. Because I know the level of talent and character assembled here today, typical of Berkeley Law, I’m confident you will meet that challenge.”
Williams, a trademark associate at Cooley in Washington, D.C., said, “I think it’s clear that we’ve already encountered and overcome many challenges together. What I look forward to is seeing what happens when, as Justice Streeter said, the time comes for each of us to step out and lead on our own.”
Challenging as their unprecedented law school experience was, it seems this year’s graduates drew lessons from it that are already paying dividends. Blum, who completed his military law training last week and will start work as an Army JAG Corps attorney next month in Georgia, explained that many of his Berkeley Law mentors emphasized the dynamic nature of legal practice and the need to be flexible.
“Knowing we were able to still graduate law school and have such a high pass rate on the bar exam, all while shifting to online instruction and dealing with the challenges of the ongoing global pandemic, puts things in perspective when something difficult comes up at work,” Blum said. “I think we all gained some resiliency and realized we’re capable of dealing with more than we may have thought we could have a couple years ago.”
As the new bar members embark upon their legal careers, Wilken urged them to not lose track of why they decided to become a lawyer.
“It can become tempting to sacrifice your true priorities,” she said. “The pressure of law practice can be daunting, and the pressure to win can be overwhelming. But you’ve been given a privilege and an opportunity … Your skills and your creativity are vitally important, and the need for lawyers to respond to injustice has always been overwhelming.”
Streeter closed his remarks by offering 10 tips for how to achieve personal, career, and ethical satisfaction as a lawyer. The last nugget:
“Remember that whether you realize it or not, you are now a teacher, a mentor, a role model, and an ambassador at large for the bar and the justice system. Conduct yourself accordingly.”
Watch the ceremony video