Commencement celebration honors Seattle U Law’s Class of 2024 graduates

May 22, 2024 · By Nicole Jennings
Photos of students at May Commencement
Photos by Aidan Sales / Graphic by Neil Griffith

Nearly 200 Seattle University School of Law graduates celebrated the culmination of their legal education at May Commencement on Saturday morning. Jubilant relatives and friends filled almost every seat of Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall, cheering wildly as the graduates walked across the stage.

After the ceremony, the happy reunions between grads and loved ones overflowed from the crowded lobby onto the Seattle sidewalks, as newly-hooded scholars posed for photographs, accepted bouquets of flowers, and embraced.

The graduates included those receiving Juris Doctor, Master of Laws, and Master of Legal Studies degrees. The Class of 2024 also includes the first cohort of students to graduate from the innovative hybrid-online Flex JD Program, one of the first of its kind in the country.

Mary Smith, the first Native American woman to become president of the American Bar Association, delivered the keynote address. She spoke of her own path to success from an underprivileged, underrepresented background, the first generation in her family to not only attend college, but also finish high school.

Despite these challenges, Smith’s career as an attorney took her to the White House, where she spent three years as associate director of President Bill Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council and one year as associate counsel to the president. She has also worked as a counselor and trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I did not think it was possible for someone like me to become a lawyer,” said Smith, who, in addition to her legal accomplishments, founded the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation, a nonprofit named for her mother and grandmother that provides science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational opportunities and career training for Native American women and girls.

Smith noted that even after making it to the legal profession, she still frequently felt like an outsider, as a first-generation law school graduate who was often the only Native American person in the room. She persevered through “hard work, resilience, and self-determination,” and she urged graduates to do the same.

“You are the architects of your own destiny, within the law and beyond,” Smith told the graduates. “You are now at the helm of your own self-determination. Your career is a landscape waiting to be shaped by your decisions, your values, and your vision for the future.”

Coming from a diverse background and being a ‘legal outsider’ should be viewed as assets, Smith said, because the legal world needs fresh, new perspectives that match the experiences of the people it serves.

“Reflect on the journey that has led you to this point. Each of you has overcome significant obstacles to be here, a testament to your resilience and commitment to your dreams,” Smith said. “You have graduated, and you belong. Your backgrounds and firsts are your superpowers.”

Seattle University Provost Shane Martin bestowed honorary Seattle U Law degrees upon Smith “for her extraordinary accomplishments throughout her distinguished career,” as well as upon Dominique Davis, founder of the youth nonprofit Community Passageways, “for his transformational work in the community that exemplifies Seattle University’s mission.”

JD candidate Joseph Phillippi delivered the student address, in which he urged his classmates to always “chase love” in their careers.

“Love is a choice we get to make over and over,” he said. “Don’t chase a bigger and bigger paycheck, don’t chase the title and name on the side of a building as a substitute for genuine purpose, don’t chase status and acceptance in crowds of people who don’t really have your back in lieu of meaningful connections. Chase love because it is the only thing that makes this all make sense. Chase love and you’ll never be lost.”

During his time at Seattle U Law, Phillippi founded and served as president and treasurer of the Justice in Labor and Employment Law Organization (JELLO). He was also treasurer of the Plaintiff Law Association and a finalist in several Mock Trial and Moot Court competitions, both here at home and across the country.

Dean Anthony E. Varona addressed the candidates by offering congratulations and encouragement to never stop learning.

“We as lawyers will continue to learn, grow, and perfect our craft until we retire from the profession and even beyond,” Varona said.

Varona reminded the graduates to always practice their legal skills, using the word ‘practice’ as a mnemonic device spelling out the essential qualities of a lawyer: professionalism; reaching out to others; appreciation; courage; trustworthiness; integrity; compassion; and enjoyment of the work.

“Recognize how fortunate you each are to have reached this pinnacle of success,” Varona said. “Graduates, dazzle in your light.”

JD candidate Ariel Cook received the 2024 Dean’s Medal, and JD candidate Jacob Simmons was named the 2024 Faculty Trust Scholar.

Professor Lily Kahng and Professor and Center for Indian Law and Policy Faculty Director Gregory Silverman, who are retiring after each spending more than two decades at the law school, were both named faculty emeriti during the ceremony. Professor Deborah Ahrens, vice dean for Intellectual Life, was named the 2024 Outstanding Faculty Honoree and Marshal-at-Arms.

One-hundred-eighty-one candidates are expected to receive a JD and nine are expected to receive an LLM. Degrees for May graduates are considered final once grades are posted in June. In August, nine students are expected to receive a JD, and five are expected to receive an MLS. August graduates are invited to walk in the May or December ceremonies.

A video of the ceremony and an album of photos are posted online.

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