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At VLS, A Call To Act

South Royalton ­— The 38th Vermont Law School commencement was meant to celebrate the 300 graduates assembled in rows, but the send-off message presented by alumni, faculty and students was about thinking beyond themselves.

Marching to the whistle of a bagpipe, the graduates walked silently from campus through the streets to the town green. Family members stretched on tiptoe to snap a photograph as the students, clad in black robes with indigo caps, filed into the large white tent and found their seats.

“Hello, Class of 2013,” VLS President and Dean Marc Mihaly said to cheers and shouts. “I’m pleased to talk to you on — for some of you graduates, after 26 some years of school — your very, very, very last day of school.”

Twenty-eight distance learning students traveled from as far away as the Philippines and Puerto Rico to participate in this year’s commencement ceremony, making 2013 the first time in school history that its degree recipients will include both residential and non-residential students.

In his welcoming remarks, Mihaly confessed that he could recall “absolutely nothing of what was said” at his own law school graduation. “So I want to focus on something that might resonate with you right now so that it really doesn’t matter if you remember it or not,” he said to his laughing students.

Mihaly explained that he struggled with the “me” concept during his time in law school — his studies, projects and papers benefitted only him.

“As I started to work, in my case in legal aid, but it really doesn’t matter where, from the very first day, suddenly it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about them, the clients. Real people with real problems to solve, real issues to address, and I was the one that made the difference between help or no help.” Mihaly said. “The work world pulls you away from yourself and into the lives of others, into the problems and issues of individuals and institutions and that becomes your focus.”

Student speaker Kristen Friedman Tietz followed Mihaly’s call to action, reciting the pledge they each took on arriving at VLS. “I commit myself to zealous advocacy for justice and to ethical service without prejudice,” Tietz said, reading the last line of the pledge. She repeated the phrasing “zealous advocate,” reminding her classmates that whether they came to law school because they were inspired by the television show Law and Order or the movie A Few Good Men, they were leaving firm in their beliefs and sure of their capabilities.

She joked that they probably wouldn’t have made it through without ice cream, alcohol and good friends, but surviving “Vermont’s two seasons: snow and mud” together made their time at VLS all the better.

“We have successfully made it through law school and everyone else has successfully made it through putting up with us while we were in law school,” Tietz quipped.

The commencement address was given by Randy Hertz, a clinical professor at New York University School of Law. Hertz also serves on the VLS board of trustees. He said he has attended his fair share of commencement ceremonies over the past 28 years and has learned three things about speeches: keep them memorable, inspirational and brief.

As he emphasized the importance of keeping in contact with mentors and professors, his cell phone rang. “That’s probably one of my students right now, calling to tell me what’s happening,” he said with a smile.

Hertz described two themes — community service and continual learning — as keys to success in the world of law. “You need to do more on your own to continue to educate yourself,” Hertz said.

In the spirit of mentorship, faculty, alumni and students honored professor Linda Smiddy during the commencement ceremony. Smiddy, who has taught courses in contracts, corporate finance, corporations, and comparative law at VLS as a full-time faculty member since 1988, is retiring after this year.

“When Dean Mihaly asked me to say a few words about professor Smiddy on behalf of the alumni, I was thrilled, and then I was overwhelmed,” said VLS Alumni Association President Karis North, her voice cracking.

“How do you put 25 years of caring and affection into a few brief remarks? But since I’m a lawyer, taught by professor Smiddy, I did what lawyers do. I did my research and talked to my colleagues.” She then cited anecdotes alumni shared with her of Smiddy’s influence on their lives and careers. “On behalf of all of your co-alumni, thank you professor Smiddy, for your gifts of support and wisdom and advice. Thank you for teaching us how to lawyer with skill, with grace, with poise and with confidence.”

The ceremony closed with the presentation of honorary degrees to Hertz, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell and the “father of Brazilian environmental law,” professor Paulo Affonso Leme Machado.

As it neared noon, Vice Dean Mark Latham called the graduates to the stage to receive their ivory-colored diplomas and green and gold hoods. They turned their tassels and returned to their seats, where they listened to classmate Katie Thomas close the ceremony with the singing of the national anthem.

Elena Mihaly received the Learned Hand Award for Academic Excellence; Sarah Mooney was awarded the Alumni Association Award for Contribution to the School; The Maximilian W. Kempner Award was given to Richard Sala and Scott Cullen, ‘97, was presented with the Jeff and Genie Shields Prize.

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@vnews.com or 603-727-3234.