Class of 2023 Joyously Celebrates Commencement Day
Members of the Class of 2023 may have started their Brooklyn Law School journey on Zoom, but they finished it in real life—and gloriously—with a Commencement Day 2023 celebration that reflected pride in their hard-won accomplishments and a determination to bring about change in the world.
After striding across a Brooklyn Academy of Music stage bedecked with vibrant flowers, 379 Brooklyn Law students received their J.D. degrees and 11 were presented their LL.M. degrees as friends, family, peers, and the entire school community cheered them on.
New York Attorney General, Hon. Letitia “Tish” James, who was conferred the honorary degree of Juris Doctor Honoris Causa, gave a stirring Commencement address, saluting the achievements of the graduates and appealing to them to be brave and stand up for the rights of the disenfranchised, those who are discriminated against, and those in need.
“Show the compassion, empathy, care, and courage to fight for them,” James said. In a time of disruption and polarizing politics, of a global pandemic, of conflicts, and “a more divided country than at any time since the Civil War,” she said, “the law is an incredible power, and those trained to wield it have an awesome responsibility.” She called on the graduates to take action by defending a woman’s right to choose, helping to keep others safe through “common-sense gun safety laws, pushing for more legislation to protect us all,” and to “stand shoulder to shoulder and side by side” with those who experience hate.
“That is now your calling, whether you go to a firm or to Legal Aid,” James said. “You’re all connected in this fight together. The challenge is up to you to be committed to justice.”
New graduates also took to the stage to speak. Valedictorian Hayley A. Bork ’23 presented a moving address, beginning with reflections on how much the class of 2023 had been through together, from the difficulty of making connections while going to law school remotely during the pandemic to witnessing events such as racial justice protests, the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, and legal rulings and laws that have led to diminishing rights for women, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants, among others. Yet, Bork said, the graduates have persevered.
“We are a group that asks the important questions, and that faces the obstacles,” Bork said. “We came to Brooklyn Law School to make the world a better place.”
The valedictorian called on fellow graduates to acknowledge the immense privilege they have.
“Try to do some good with it; share it, not with apathy but as someone who cares,” Bork said. To not embrace the status quo, but to act as if it’s possible to transform the world.”
Bork turned the stage over to Matthew Lign Fulton ’23, who was elected by fellow grads as student speaker. Fulton began with humor, saying he hadn’t told his parents about the speech, joking that he was “practicing for lawyer confidentiality.”
“I told them we were going to a Taylor Swift concert,” Fulton quipped. From the vantage point of someone who “always sat in the back row in class,” Fulton said he observed a lot about his fellow students. He watched with admiration as they progressed from answering professors’ cold calls timidly and coming to class sleepless from working full-time jobs and caring for family to gaining confidence in the classroom, forming study groups and lifelong friendships, volunteering for pro bono projects, organizing to help Ukrainian refugees, and “becoming the counselors you wanted to be.”
In Dean Michael T. Cahill’s address, he congratulated the graduates who, he said, “faced unforeseen and unprecedented challenges” and encouraged them to take pride in arriving at this moment. He acknowledged the enormous contributions of the faculty members who are retiring, including professors Lawrence Solan and Beryl Jones-Woodin. In addition, he spoke of two of the graduates’ classmates who tragically passed away: Robert Taronji and Robert Stengel.
Taronji was working full time as a courtroom deputy for the Hon. District Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District while simultaneously attending Brooklyn Law. Stengel was presented his J.D. in October 2022, just before he passed away, and will be remembered for his “determination, intellect, aptitude, collegiality, work ethic, and thoughtfulness,” said Cahill.
Stengel’s classmate and close friend Priyadarshini Das ’23 spoke of efforts that fellow students had made in honor of Stengel’s memory, including establishing a scholarship for a civil procedure student as well as the Robert Stengel Award for Moot Court competitors. This year’s award was given to Sara Mucha ’23.
Multiple alumni played a role in the ceremony, including Frank J. Aquila ’83, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, who extended a warm welcome to all and introduced James.
Diane Penneys Edelman ’83, Visiting Director of International Programs, presented the Master of Laws degrees to the 11 graduates. “They have brought experience with legal systems from countries around the world into our classrooms, enriching the educational experience of their classmates with their international perspective,” said Edelman.
In his invocation, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik ’86, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, spoke of how we are often identified with titles following our names, and that the title “Juris Doctor” will now follow the names of graduates.
“But more important is the decency of your heart, of character over credentials,” Potasnik said, adding that the ancient Greek Olympians were lauded “not as those who came in first but whose torch burned brightly. May your torch burn brightly. And, as we say in Brooklyn, ‘Mazel tov.’ Amen.”
Faculty and administrators presenting the J.D. diplomas included Vice Dean Miriam Baer, along with Associate Dean for Research and Scholarship and Professor Jocelyn Simonson and Professor Michael Gerber, who greeted each of the proud graduates and read their names, to the accompaniment of great cheers from the audience. Sixteen of the graduates also had alumni family members at their sides to present them with degrees.
In closing, Alumni Association President Deborah Riegel ’93 took the stage to welcome the new grads to Brooklyn Law’s alumni community and encourage them to stay involved.
“Remember this feeling and bring it back to the next class and the next generation who will benefit from your experience and support,” Riegel said.
View and download photos from Commencement 2023 on Flickr.