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Senator Nelson '68 Urges Class of 2013 to Strive to Always Act Ethically in Careers

By Brian McNeill

Sen. Bill Nelson ’68
Sen. Bill Nelson '68

In his commencement address on May 19, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson ’68 of Florida urged the graduating class to always act ethically as lawyers and to restore the public's trust in the legal profession.

Nelson, Florida's senior senator, told members of the class of 2013 that they will face difficult ethical questions in their careers and that the profession is being "sullied by an increasing number of lawyers facing corruption and ethics charges."

"Each of you has a very special calling in life, which is why you must be rooted in the law and public service and must consider the ethical obligations that extend to the broader system beyond your office walls," Nelson said. "Clearly you're not going to be able to change the recent past, but if you are determined, you can rewrite the near future. You can help restore the legal profession to its rightful place of honor in the public's eye."

Nelson described a number of ethically challenging scenarios that the graduates might encounter.

"If you were the corporate attorney for the international firm that's cooking the books, will you sign the annual statement?" he said. "Or consider: A young lawyer in Richmond is offered an incentive bonus of 20 percent of the amount he saves a corporation on state and federal taxes. Should he accept the payment?"

Or, he said, suppose a client sends a lawyer an expensive diamond necklace as thanks for winning a big case. Should she keep the gift? Or, he said, maybe a lobbyist offers to pull some strings to help a politicians' underachieving child get into law school, with the implied message that it would be in exchange for voting a certain way. Should the lobbyist make such an offer?

In facing these and other ethical challenges, Nelson encouraged the graduates to remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi.

"It was Gandhi who said there are but seven sins in life: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humility, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle," he said. "We can add one more here today — law without ethics."

"And indeed if [it was] a sin," he added, "then our saving grace would be to always strive to bring basic moral values to the practice of the law."

Dean Paul G. Mahoney praised the class of 2013 — which was comprised of 364 J.D. graduates, 43 LL.M. graduates and one S.J.D. graduate — for its strong interest in public service over the past three years.

"You did not focus just on yourselves [while in law school]," he said. "You raised money and donated your time to countless important causes. Indeed, your engagement with this community and many others has been remarkable and noteworthy."

Members of the class collectively put in more than 13,500 hours of pro bono service to assist those who could not afford legal representation, and 93 members of the class completed the Law School's Pro Bono Challenge by performing 75 hours or more of free legal work.

"This is a record for any class in the history of the Law School," Mahoney said.

Mahoney highlighted a number of milestones achieved by members of the class. Under their leadership, he noted, the North Grounds Softball League's 30th annual tournament raised $20,000 for the Charlottesville nonprofit Children, Youth, and Family Services; the Public Interest Law Association's annual auction raised $68,000 for grants to fund students' summer public service jobs; and the 10 student-run academic journals published 34 issues, including the inaugural issue of the Virginia Journal of Criminal Law.

Members of the class of 2013, he noted, represented the Law School in UVA's Entrepreneurship Cup; formed the Molly Pitcher Project that helped overturn the military's ban on women in combat; and appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in a segment highlighting a law student's work to help children in need.

"Your class has dealt with challenges with grace, perseverance and poise," Mahoney said. "You lived through an earthquake, studied through the transformation of the south end of Slaughter Hall into the new Karsh Student Services Center and even made honey out of honeybees."

Mahoney then held a moment of silence for Momina Cheema, a member of the class of 2013 who died in June 2011.

The Law School, he said, is proud of the class of 2013 and confident in its future.

"You are trained to be leaders, and you will be in your careers, in your communities, and in some cases in elected or appointed government service. I have no doubt that at some future reunion of the class of 2013 — the most diverse class in the law school's history — we will all celebrate the many ways that you have succeeded in the intervening years."

He added that it has been a "true pleasure" for the faculty to "watch you grow intellectually and personally."

"We send you on your way today with our complete admiration, affection and, most of all, our congratulations," he said.

Also at the ceremony, outgoing Student Bar Association President Alexandra Aurisch announced that 87 percent of the graduating class had pledged to support the Law School in the future, continuing a tradition over the past decade in which more than 80 percent of each graduating class pledged their support.

"Supporting the Law School," she said, "is more accurately a commitment to the future classes of UVA Law, so that they will share the same experiences we had here."