Hon. Joy V. Cunningham (’82) Offers 209th Commencement Address Online

Headshot of Justice Joy V. Cunningham ('82)

Due to the unfortunate circumstances presented by the global Covid-19 pandemic, Hon. Joy V. Cunningham, Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, offered the Law School’s 209th Commencement address at a virtual celebration of our December 2020 graduating class. The following is a transcript of her remarks.

Dean Dickerson and the UIC John Marshall faculty and Board of Trustees, thank you so much for giving me the honor of delivering this commencement address.

I would like to start by applauding the family and friends of the graduates for the considerable support – both emotional and material which you have provided for these graduates.  They could not have reached this milestone today without you.

Finally, and most importantly, my warmest congratulations to the UIC John Marshall Law School Class of 2020:

You did it!  And will soon be members of the bar.

The day that you have worked so hard for is finally here – graduation from Law School.  You have survived the great pandemic of 2020 and are on the threshold of your careers.  It is exciting and frightening at the same time.  Just think about it for a moment, you are no longer law students, you are about to become real lawyers, earning a living, paying back your student loans and most important of all helping people – because that is what lawyers do.  If you are successful at it and make a good living, all the better, but no one really goes to law school for the sole purpose of making money.  There are easier paths to that destination than three years of law school.  So why did you spending the last three or four years undertaking this life changing process known as law school.  Only you can answer that, individually but collectively you know you did it for a variety of reasons, but it all leads back to service in one way or another. 

So I am going to give you my formula for how to be successful and happy in this profession that you have chosen.  It is indeed a noble profession and interesting careers award you, just as it did me and your professors. 

You have worked hard these past few years and now you are done.  All that is left to do is to go out and have a great career.  Aside from passing the bar exam which you are all going to do.  Let me share with you my three-pronged formula for a successful legal career.  They are all related as you will see and while their absence does not mean that your career won’t be successful, their presence will ensure it. 

You are about to embark on an incredible journey.  How you choose to use your law degree will be up to you, but you should understand that it is a powerful tool that can be used for good.  With you law degree you can become a superhero in ways you never thought possible, both great and small.

The possibilities for how you choose to use your law degree are endless.  I realize this is both exciting and terrifying at the same time, so I’d like to share three pieces of advice for navigating the professional journey upon which you’re about to embark

The first is:

Practicality and passion

The challenge is to find a balance between practicality and passion. I know that the vast majority of you have incurred significant debt to get your law degree. There is real pressure to get a job fast because those student loans are coming due.

But I would also tell you that there has to be a passion for the work that you are going to be doing over the long term as a lawyer or however you choose to use your law degree without passion you won’t be happy.

I know this from experience because I was fortunate.  I was passionate about each and every legal job I ever held.  I am still passionate today about my work as a Justice of the Appellate Court.

Find your passion? How can you combine your license to practice law with what really moves you in the world?  If you figure that out, you are well on your way to having a satisfying professional life.

Do good in the world

So, my second piece of advice is to use your degree for the good of the community.  Your law degree is not just a piece of paper to help you make money.  It is an opportunity to make a real and lasting difference in people’s lives.

Take the civil rights gains in our country over the past 60 years as one example.  For the most part, they occasioned by lawyers or legislators with law degrees, who used the law to challenge illegal and segregated schools.  A law degree allowed those lawyers to become legal superheros.

As a young lawyer, I did pro bono cases representing mentally disabled people who suddenly found themselves ineligible for disability payments although their mental condition was unchanged.  It was an exciting thing for me to do as a young lawyer.  I learned a lot and helped others who had nowhere else to turn.  I earned no money, but I was a superhero to the people I helped, and it helped me understand the power of my law degree. 

Understanding that your law degree is a powerful tool for good is very important and more fulfilling than you can imagine.


My third piece of advice is that as a lawyer you must network, you have to work with others, be they opponents or colleagues.  That is what successful lawyers so.  A well-known lawyer once said: “If you see a turtle on the top of a light pole, you can be sure it didn’t get there by itself.”  How true!

To be a really successful lawyer whether you chose to practice in a large place like Chicago, or a small town you are going to need to work with other, so developing professional networking skills, which will yield enduring professional relationships is very important.  Networking is an essential tool of a lawyer and it pays off throughout your career.

I understand that for your generation, there is nothing unusual about having a conversation with others through social media.  But you need to understand that the law is something of a throwback in this respect, and in-person networking is still important in the legal profession. It’s how you will get to know your peers, judges and colleagues and how they will come to know and regard you.  Many of the components that make up a successful legal career will come from networking, not from social media.  So, figure out how to combine the technology of your comfort zone with sitting old- fashioned networking.  It may be out of your comfort zone but do it, as its essential to the practice of law.

So those are my three pieces of advice to you:

Blend practicality with passion;

find a way to do good with your law degree;

and network – the old-fashioned way.

These things have served me well in my career, and they continue to shape my path and support me today.

In conclusion

Let me leave you with this thought from Albert Einstein. He said:

“I never think about the future. It comes soon enough.”

“Don’t worry about the bar exam it will come soon enough!”  You are on a good path, there will be many opportunities for you because you leave here today with a prestigious and versatile degree, and the possibilities and opportunities for you are limitless.

Remember this, as you begin your career:  everything that you are doing at a particular point in time is preparing you for your next opportunity; so take advantage of this superhero tool that you have just earned and the possibilities are limitless.

Congratulations again as you embark on an exciting journey, you have all the tools necessary to get to your destination successfully.  Best of luck to all of you!

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