Excerpts from an interview with Adrienne Lotson, ‘87,
April 5, 2008
I always felt like I never had the luxury of just being a law student. There was always something else going on. That was true pretty much for the first couple years. Now of course, it wasn’t always as extreme or as dramatic as a car blowing up and a wrecking ball, but there was always something happening in the background. The background noise was very loud in my life. It was very frustrating, so maybe that’s part of why I didn’t go to class as much – because there were just all these other things going on. It was very, very – it was tough in that way. It was very tough. But I think being really active and involved helped me, really helped me to just put all that behind me and just persevere and move forward.
This other stuff that was going on – was it family-related, or —?
Yeah. It was just the circumstances of my life, you know what I mean? It was just weird stuff. I never thought of it as particularly tragic stuff. I mean, there were people who had serious tragedies happening, so when I compared myself to other people, I thought, “Well, this is not —.” I mean, my father didn’t die, so it was not so bad. I didn’t have to quit school (because there was the thought that I may have to quit school to help out financially, and all that kind of stuff). I didn’t have to quit school. So that’s O.K. And O.K., so my car blew up – I didn’t die in a car crash, and there were people who did. A girl died in a car crash in our class, Francine Marie Diaz, who was a dear, dear, dear friend, and she died in a car crash our first summer, going to work at her clinic. She was working at a legal clinic and a truck hit her on the highway. When that happens you realize all these other things are no big deal. I mean, they make your life challenging, but they’re no big deal. You just continue on.
And the other thing I learned at Boalt – it was refined at Boalt, I didn’t learn it at Boalt – was that room is made for your gifts. I remember preparing to give the graduation speech, Third-Year commencement speech, and once again I was nicely told by The Powers That Be that there were certain subjects I shouldn’t talk about in this speech. It was so funny, because we had a Senior Class meeting; we were told you really should stay away from these kinds of topics. We’re sitting there going, “Oh, O.K. Hmm. Alright. Thanks.” We walk out of the office and we all say, “O.K. What are we gonna say?!” [Laughs] We were spurred on. “Adrienne, what are you gonna say?”
I said what was on my heart. I remember that speech to this day. I could almost say it again verbatim. The speech was about how we are now lawyers, and therefore we were given a whole lot of power. But with power came responsibility. I was sitting here on this mountaintop. I quoted King and I said, “Dr. Martin Luther King said he had been to the top of the mountain. Well, this may not be the top of the mountain, but it sure is one heck of a hill.” When you’re at the top of the hill, you look at your world from all sides, where you come from and where you’re going. I talked about what it was like as a little kid, to be the salutatorian of my class, how excited I was but how little did I know that soon I would be running from school if I missed the school bus in Howard Beach, because it wasn’t safe for a kid like me to be in that neighborhood after the school bus left. How it would have hurt me then that, despite graduating from Dartmouth College and scoring the 97th percentile of the LSAT, I would be told repeatedly, both overtly and covertly, that I didn’t belong at a place like Boalt Hall, and but for affirmative action I wouldn’t be here at all. So I turned around from looking at my past, and I looked at the world we were in and I saw the horrors of the apartheid system in South Africa, I saw the questionable ethics of Edwin Meese and the Wedtech issues of the time, which were big ethical issues at the time. I looked at all these social issues and injustices, and I said, “I sat on this mountaintop looking at my world from all sides and I wept. And then I thought of Francine.” I talked about Francine Marie Diaz, that she was a woman who was committed to making a difference in the world. That she taught us all in her short life what it meant to be committed to a cause and to work hard and to work ethically. I said, “You know, it doesn’t matter what kind of law we practice. It doesn’t matter if we practice environmental law, tax law, whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how we practice law. How we treat people. How we conduct ourselves. Will we commit to not doing things that are unethical? I went into these various kinds of examples: will you commit to fairness, and all this kind of stuff. I said, “That is all that I can ask of you, but it is the very least that you should ask of yourselves.”
Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what kind of law you practice, it doesn’t matter at all. It matters what kind of lawyer you are. So I said, “So all that I can ask of you is the least that you should ask of yourselves.” I told them that I loved Francine very much. And I wished them all the best of everything that life had to offer. And I cried, because I thought of Francine and I thought about this world that we were going into as lawyers, and I thought about the apartheid system – because at that time we had divested, but apartheid was still going on. At that time people were losing money in various kinds of scandals, losing pension funds or saving and loans, crazy stuff going on. It just looked bleak. It just looked very, very bleak.
A little bit like it looks right now, right? In America right now, economically things don’t look good. The dollar’s not worth much, people are losing their homes, we’re in a war we can’t win. Things look bleak. But I encouraged people to think of Francine, and to think about what it means to give your life to something bigger than you. What it means to make a difference in the world, even if you don’t profit monetarily from it. Even if you do profit monetarily from it! Something bigger than just money.
I remember after that speech there were a number of people who were very upset because I had mentioned these different social injustices, but there were more people that were inspired. I knew then that your gifts make room for you. That I couldn’t be silenced, that I refused to be silenced, and I was willing to let the chips fall where they may. I’d like to think that in some way at least one person left that ceremony thinking, “I want to do something that’s bigger than me. I want to do what Francine would have done.”
And that’s what I took from Boalt.