Speaker Says Humility, Among Other Tools, Will Serve Graduates Well

Catherine Keating '87, Who Has Overseen Billions, Started Out on the Cafeteria Committee
Catherine Keating '87 addresses the crowd

Say yes to the cafeteria committee. "If you want to change people's lives, sometimes you have to start with things that aren't that glamorous, or don't seem that important," commencement speaker Catherine Keating '87 said.

May 21, 2017

When life asks you to lead the cafeteria committee, you should open up your briefcase, take out some humility and gladly serve.

That was a life lesson 2017 commencement speaker Catherine Keating, the president and CEO of investment firm Commonfund, shared with graduates of the University of Virginia School of Law on Sunday. She used the concept of a briefcase's contents to illustrate what qualities graduates should take with them into the working world. Graduation was the first occasion the successful 1987 alumnae of the Law School has spoken at the University.

Keating joined Commonfund in 2015 as the fifth CEO in its 45-year history, and its first female CEO, after overseeing more than $700 billion in client assets at JPMorgan. But before those high-profile jobs, she was a newly minted attorney working for a law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

"I admit I was not excited about it — the cafeteria committee?" she said. "Not the strategic planning committee or maybe the new business committee?

"I'll be honest: Not only was I not excited, I even wondered if I should be a tiny bit insulted."

But Keating said she checked her pride, and it paid off.

"I was wrong to think that way," she said. "Because the cafeteria was my first chance to be a leader, and I grabbed it. I hired a new chef. We launched made-to-order. We posted calories for the first time. And you know what? You can change people's lives by providing a better breakfast and a better lunch. And if you want to meet all your colleagues — just change their menu! People really care about breakfast and lunch. And once you can lead the cafeteria committee, you can lead other things as well. So when someone asks you to lead something for the first time — say yes. Even if it's not glamorous, or doesn't seem important. Because leadership is always important."

In addition to humility and the ability "to roll up your sleeves and do whatever job needs doing," other attributes in Keating's ideal briefcase included energy, empathy and curiosity. But she also included some items that aren't purely abstract.

Keating added the University's famous Honor Code, a pledge to never lie, cheat or steal, because she said its principles have served her well in the financial world. During the financial crisis, she said, "I saw that many failures aren't just failures of competence, they are also failures of character."

In a nod to a popular student activity at the Law School, Keating also included a softball.

"You can't graduate from the Law School without time on the softball field, right?" Keating said. "But it will also remind you to get off the sidelines. Be on the field, in whatever position suits you, and fulfills your purpose."

In addition, Keating said she would add a calculator "to help you measure what matters most."

Remembering what matters is part of having a "2047 perspective," she said. By that, she meant, keeping an eye on what you want your life to be in the long term — for example, 30 years after graduation.

Keating said she never had a career plan, per se. But she has had a sense of purpose, and she said she has known for the past three decades that she wanted her life to be about more than just routine deliberations, no matter how weighty they might seem at the time.

"When you think about decisions that way, you realize that there are only a handful that are really important," Keating said. "And those decisions are about people: the people you choose to spend your time with at home, at the office and in your community. You want to get those 2047 decisions — the people decisions — right. There will be hundreds of other decisions that worry you and stress you along the way. Trust me, I know. I have worried, I have stressed, but try to keep the 2047 perspective, the people perspective."

UVA Law Dean Risa Goluboff introduced Keating, provided welcoming remarks and announced student awards, which were followed by the hooding ceremony and ceremonial scroll presentation. In total, 297 J.D. candidates, 36 LL.M. and one S.J.D. candidate will receive degrees in the Class of 2017.

360° Video of Hooding Ceremony



Awards Presented at Graduation

Margaret G. Hyde Award
To the graduate whose scholarship, character, personality, activities in the affairs of the school, and promise of efficiency have entitled him or her to special recognition.
Andrew Manns

James C. Slaughter Honor Award 
To an outstanding member of the graduating class.
Danielle Christine Desaulniers

Thomas Marshall Miller Prize
To an outstanding and deserving member of the graduating class.
Cassandra Trombley-Shapiro Jonas

Z Society Shannon Award
To the graduate with the highest academic record after five semesters.
Andrew Manns

LL.M. Graduation Award
Jacqueline Jennifer Bronsdon

Robert E. Goldsten Award for Distinction in the Classroom
To the graduate who has contributed the most to classroom education by his or her outstanding recitation and discussion.
Alexander John Swartwood

Roger and Madeleine Traynor Prize
To two graduates who have produced outstanding written work.
Michael Corcoran
Ethan J. Foster

Herbert Kramer/Herbert Bangel Community Service Award
To the graduate who has contributed the most to the community
Amber Adelaide Strickland

Mortimer Caplin Public Service Award
To a graduate entering a career in the public service sector who demonstrates the qualities of leadership, integrity and service to others.
Teresa Rostkowski Hepler

Edwin S. Cohen Tax Prize
To the graduate who has demonstrated superior scholarship in the tax area.
Amanda M. Leon
David Arakel Maranjian

Earle K. Shawe Labor Relations Award
To the graduate who shows the greatest promise in the field of labor relations.
Grace Margaret O'Donnell

John M. Olin Prize in Law and Economics
To a graduate or graduates who have produced outstanding written work in the field of law and economics.
Michael G. Sanders

Eppa Hunton IV Memorial Book Award
To a graduate who demonstrates unusual aptitude in courses in the field of litigation, and who shows a keen awareness and understanding of the lawyer's ethical and professional responsibility.
Marc A. Nowak

Virginia Trial Lawyers Trial Advocacy Award
To a graduate who shows particular promise in the field of trial advocacy.
Cassandra Trombley-Shapiro Jonas

Virginia State Bar Family Law Book Award
To the graduate who has demonstrated the most promise and potential for the practice of family law.
Elizabeth Joy Hartery


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Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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