CPL Director and Harvard Law School (HLS) alumnus David Gergen (J.D. ’67) served alongside four U.S. Presidents. As the 2017 Harvard Law Association alumni award winner he joins our 44th, President Barack Obama, and other remarkable Harvard Law School alumni who have contributed to society in extraordinary ways. Recognized by HLS Dean John Manning and Harvard Law Association President Peter Krause for his “unwavering integrity, resolute commitment to advancing education, leadership, and the common good” as “an inspiring educator to future public leaders and esteemed bi-partisan White House advisor,” Gergen addressed peers, friends, and classmates during an award presentation on Saturday, October 28 – part of the school’s bicentennial celebration “HLS in the World”.
Building on the momentum of the bicentennial festivities, and his forum with 5 U.S. Senators the day before, Gergen spoke candidly about the duty of lawyers at this critical inflection point in American political history. “Lawyer-citizens,” as Gergen calls them, “must find constructive ways to raise voices, strengthen our liberties and freedoms, and our commitment to diversity and equality.”
David Gergen with (L-R), Senators Tom Cotton, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Elizabeth Warren, and Jack Reed.
We are at an immensely important moment in American history, one that could badly weaken the pillars of our democracy or — possibly — could be a turning point for the better,” said Gergen. “The Trump administration…has gone far beyond what we have witnessed in any other presidency in seeking to undermine our system of laws. The President and his team have thrown down the gauntlet, daring anyone to pick it up.” The problem, says Gergen: it’s not that easy. The legal profession is “in a funk.” There are less jobs and more graduates. Moral among lawyers — at large firms and small— is low. And trust in legal practice has fallen precipitously since the 1960’s and 70’s. But the liberties and institutions we hold dear are under dangerous assault, and it’s time for our best legal minds to step up. Despite some bright spots, most notably the rapid mobilization of lawyers across this country in response to the administration’s travel ban earlier this year, we must demand more. Lawyers, Gergen argued, need to join the ranks of corporate CEOs, athletes, military personnel, and members of the press who have pushed back on this administration forcefully and publicly on issues of climate change, trade, and Charlottesville, to name a few.
“There is so much upon which to build,” Gergen said optimistically, evidenced by the fact that barriers are beginning to come down against minorities and women and “our students celebrate Bryan Stevenson’s work to reform our criminal justice system and cheer David Boies and Ted Olson—an unlikely pair, one liberal and one conservative who together persuaded the Court to embrace gay marriage.” It is not all doom and gloom. Through this political test there is an opportunity to revive the great heritage of the legal profession, to reinvigorate the role of the public servant and lawyer-citizen. But, said Gergen in closing, “To those who say the legal profession should never attack a presidential administration, I say this: it is the administration that is on the attack. What the legal profession must do is mount a successful defense. No one has a greater duty to respond and to act than the traditional stewards of our public life — the leaders of the legal profession.”