“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” says Dick the Butcher in William Shakespeare’s play, “Henry VI, Part 2.” Why would anyone wish such violence on lawyers? Deborah Enix-Ross, the president-elect of the American Bar Association (ABA), had one possible answer for Elon University law school graduates and their families who chuckled at the quote during her commencement address earlier this month.

“It is because lawyers are guardians. Perhaps not of the galaxy, but certainly of the rule of law and democracy,” said Enix-Ross, an attorney with Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City who in August will take the helm as president of the world’s largest voluntary association of lawyers. “Our institutions are strong, but they are not invincible. They require the support and protection of lawyers to endure. It is our duty to preserve America’s rule of law and the credibility of our justice system.”

Elon University conferred degrees on 127 graduates on Saturday, Dec. 11, inside Alumni Gym, where members of the Class of 2021 gathered with friends and loved ones to celebrate the formal end of their legal education.

So how can Elon Law’s newest graduates serve as guardians of the law? Enix-Ross had an answer to that question, too.

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Deborah Enix-Ross

“Say yes to service, whether you practice in a large city firm, a small firm, a government agency, county attorney’s office, public defender’s office, a corporation, legal aid office, public interest group or other endeavor that can leverage your talents and interests,” she said. “There continues to be a major breach between the legal needs of people who have lower incomes or are otherwise disadvantaged and the legal help that they receive. So when a mentor or a colleague asks you to join them in a bar or public service initiative, say yes.”

Enix-Ross told graduates that they will be tested and challenged in any number of ways.

“Whatever the storms and pressures around us, we must always maintain our ethics, demonstrate civility and encourage respect for our institutions of law and values of justice,” she said. “As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, ‘Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.’”

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Enix-Ross noted that the Class of 2021 is graduating from an Elon Law program that emphasizes learning by doing and the importance of innovation. Elon Law has prepared graduates to be nimble in facing future challenges, she said, even as they have already learned to adapt to new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She concluded her commencement address by reminding graduates of her call to service: “My wish for you is that you, too, will be open to the possibilities that a simple ‘yes’ will have on your lives, remembering the adage, ‘You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.’”

The commencement event also featured a student address by Sean Jeffcoat, who was elected by his fellow students to speak. Jeffcoat asked his classmates to “control what you can control” when times in life get tough.

And remember that life is not a competition, he said. “These grades won’t matter after this, but what you do is going to matter,” he added. “From this day forth, stop competing. Work together.  We came here to make the world a better place, so why not keep doing that?”

This article has been edited and condensed from the original version appearing on the Elon University website.

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