This afternoon, during the Class Day ceremony, Tyler Giannini stood up to the podium and accepted from the Class of 2014 the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence. It was a thrilling moment for those of us who know him, and work with him, and see this as a tribute not just to Tyler himself, but to clinical education at Harvard Law School.
His speech is reprinted below:
Thank you for this honor. It is humbling—and honestly a bit terrifying—to be here with all of you: with Dean Minow, faculty, staff, friends, parents, and the graduating class. In all seriousness, I am deeply moved to receive this teaching award from you, the graduating class. What has struck me—what continues to strike me—is how strange it feels to be singled out. Perhaps this is because I have always been part of a team in my human rights work—and it has never been more perfectly realized than here with the students and clinicians at our human rights clinic.
In reflecting on today—and I’m a clinician, so you better believe reflection comes with the territory—I thought back, I wondered—how was I crazy enough to start an NGO during my last year of law school, which then took me to Thailand for a decade, and then somehow end up here teaching at Harvard. The answer is clear to me: there have always been others with me along the way. I have never done it alone—never.
All of us together are essential to success—whether in practice or in teaching. This is the way the law works in my experience; this is the way struggles for justice work. Okay, I give you that occasionally there is an Albert Einstein of law in our midst—there are probably a few on our faculty—but that is not the norm. What is the norm is that law practice is a cooperative effort—especially in working for justice.
I look back: twenty years ago next week I went to Thailand for the first time. It was my second summer of law school, and it was a defining summer: a law school classmate and I, along with an advocate from Burma, decided to start a human rights organization—EarthRights. My first day in Thailand, I also met Ang, the woman who would become my wife—my partner. These relationships have shaped my life, both in the professional and personal realms.
In my career—as in yours—the law is a vital piece of the puzzle. You need the talent to dissect legal arguments, research, write, persuade others. Working with you on our clinical teams, I have seen it firsthand: you have these talents, you have these skills. These talents and skills will no doubt continue to evolve. These are the tools of your craft, and they are your foundation.
But recently a conversation with my young daughters—Amaya and Rayna—reminded me that the tools of your craft are only part of the story. My kids have taught me to slow down and to appreciate the small moments in life. And they are right. As I look back at my ten years at Harvard, it is not the legal arguments I remember most but the moments along the way where our teams have literally hummed. I remember being on clinical missions in South Africa, Bolivia, Burma, and having breakthroughs on legal theories as we thrashed out how to link abuses to perpetrators. I remember this year wrestling with the wording of a single sentence with a clinical team over and over again until we got it right. And then seeing the legal argument end up in a judge’s decision. I remember the time another team camped out all night in the cold on the steps of the Supreme Court so they could hear oral argument on a case we worked on. I remember the moment one of the students, now an alum, put her name on a brief for the first time, joined by students who also put their names on a brief for the first time. I remember another colleague signing her first amicus brief—and the joy of sharing that moment with her. I remember seeing an alum leading a clinical team and launching a new non-profit organization. Each moment represents the culmination of collective effort. I don’t always remember what specific brief we worked on or what specific argument we were trying to advance, but I do remember these moments. They are what give meaning and texture to the work.
I have seen the good the law can do, but also the evil it can bring. How it can be used to oppress—as well as advance justice. On occasion, we do get a win, but most of the time, it is much less clear. Perhaps, this is why those of us who work for justice do it with others—because the solidarity of the struggle is part of how we measure success.
Look, the work we do is hard—everyone knows that. The problems we today face—like generations before us—are new and challenging. Whether it is preparing for a Supreme Court hearing or figuring out a transition in a post-war conflict or determining ways to address climate change or poverty in the coming decades, the problems are too large, too complex for one person. This is why the practice of social justice is not done alone. One only needs to spend an evening at the law school’s annual dinner celebrating public service—or a day in a clinic during a push on a case filing to know this is true.
A recent exchange with a colleague during an oral argument brought it all home for me. We were sitting at counsels’ table while another colleague stood at the podium and argued. We quietly jotted a few notes, and at one point, I passed one to her saying, “I am so glad you came up with that argument.” Then another question from the judge and there it was: work that the clinical team had done that very morning—the research and drafting of a crafted answer to an anticipated question. From the student’s computers to the outline of counsel and into the courtroom in a matter of hours. I passed my colleague another note saying how great the students were. And then, she jotted a few simple words on a post-it. It read: “Added all together, we’re a good lawyer.” I keep that note in my wallet. Two weeks later, we had a decision in our favor based on the arguments we made together that day. We, indeed, “added all together” had been “one good lawyer.”
I love this job: what I love is that the teaching is so wrapped up with the practice and the learning that I do with you. I am confident you, this year’s graduating class, are as committed as any to the causes you care about. And I know that you have the talent, the insights, the intellect to make a profound contribution. May you have many memorable moments in the years ahead—ones that come from a love of lawyering, a love of service, a love of teaching—and learning—and a love of working and being with others. Congratulations, everyone. Celebrate today. Celebrate tomorrow. And thank you.