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UH Law Center commencement speaker Judge Saldaña encourages graduates to change the tone of the profession to make it a kinder, more generous, more patient bar

Photo of the graduation speaker

Diana Saldaña, United States District Judge for the Southern District of Texas in Laredo, delivers the commencement speech for the 2023 UH Law Center graduation.

May 23, 2023 — The University of Houston Law Center’s graduating class of 2023 marked one of the Law Center’s most diverse classes yet.

Fifty-two percent of graduates were women and 35% of students were from underrepresented backgrounds, according to Dean Leonard M. Baynes, the ninth dean of the University of Houston Law Center.

One-fifth of the UH Law Center’s 2023 graduates were first-generation college students, and 74% were the first individuals in their families to attend law school. Furthermore, many graduates chose the legal profession as a second career, entering the UH Law Center as former athletes, nurses, engineers, Certified Public Accountants, and more. The diversity carries over to the Law Center’s LL.M. class as well, with 29 graduates from 17 countries and prior careers including teachers, CPAs, correction officers, and athletes.

On Saturday, May 13, this diverse cohort of Law Center graduates walked the stage at The Fertitta Center as the first cohort to graduate from the award-winning John M. O’Quinn Law Building.

“Graduating from the UH Law Center is an incredible achievement that requires dedication, hard work, and perseverance, and I am honored to be here to celebrate with you today,” said Diane Z. Chase, University of Houston senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.

U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, U.S. Representative for Texas’ 18th Congressional District, was also present. She delivered a Certificate of Congressional Recognition which read in part, “Congratulations to the graduates on this wonderful achievement and I wish everyone much success in the future. Your dedication to helping students achieve academic success exemplifies the Spirit of the Great State of Texas and the United States of America.”

Also in attendance were John Kolb, former chairman of the UH System Board of Regents, Sam Sheldon, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Texas, Christine Weems, 281st Civil Court Judge, Beau Miller, 190th District Court Judge, and Robert B. Mayfield, retired Johnson County Court Judge.  

The University of Houston Law Center 2023 J.D. and LL.M. graduates celebrate commencement at the Fertitta Center on May 13.

The University of Houston Law Center 2023 J.D. and LL.M. graduates celebrate commencement at the Fertitta Center on May 13.

Throughout his deanship, Baynes said he has emphasized the power of legal education—how studying the law empowers students to “write more precisely, analyze more rigorously, and advocate more persuasively.”

“Over the course of your legal education, you have exhibited the qualities necessary for success: tenacity, intellectual rigor, and focus. Yet relying on our intellect alone is not enough,” Baynes said. “Our times call for kindness, compassion, and understanding. In a country and state with so many people of so many backgrounds, it is important for us to think about each other before we act. The times require empathy so our nation will move forward together.”

In her commencement speech, Diana Saldaña, United States District Judge for the Southern District of Texas in Laredo, encouraged students to reflect on the inspiration and ambitions behind their accomplishments.

Like many of this year’s UH Law Center graduates, Saldaña was the first person from her family to graduate from college. Appointed to her current judgeship by President Barack Obama in 2011, Saldaña remains an active member of her community, mentoring students, hosting moot courts for grade schools, and counseling first-generation high school students on the college application process.

“I wanted to be a lawyer because I desired to make the world a better place. Maybe that sounds like a simple cliché, but who cares? It has served me well and enabled me to serve others well too,” Saldaña said.

“Why do you want to be a lawyer?” she asked. “I encourage you to reflect on your answer right now, and to let it guide you over the course of your career.  That’s the cornerstone of your profession: if you set it carefully now, everything you build around it will firmly withstand the ups and downs of life.”

Saldaña offered three guideposts to help graduates stay the course in using their legal education to make the world a better place.

Guidepost 1: “Never forget the privilege that your law degree gives you, or the duty that comes with that privilege.”

“When I was growing up, no one could have predicted I’d ever have any sort of privilege to talk to you about,” said Saldaña, a Carrizo Springs native who came from a family of migrant farmworkers, eventually becoming one herself at the age of 11.

“I was ashamed of being so poor. I noticed how people looked down on me when I walked into stores wearing dirty work clothes,” Saldaña said. “I saw poverty, hatred, anger, and fear—but I also saw how education can battle ignorance and access opportunities.”
The legal education students received will open doors they didn’t know existed, according to Saldaña. “It’s your responsibility to use the privilege of being an attorney to make a positive difference in other people’s lives.”

Guidepost 2: “Civility. Simply, by being kind, showing respect and having patience no matter how high the legal stakes are or how difficult the opponent is.

The legal profession is not immune to the rise of political polarization in our society. However, problems arise “when we forget what we have in common with the other side, when we insist on seeing everything in zero-sum terms,” she said.

Graduates are already equipped with the tools they need to solve such problems, Saldaña said. As critical thinkers, they’ve been taught to see “both sides of an issue.” She encouraged graduates to remember their training and practice empathy.

“Your generation has the potential to change the tone of our profession, to make us a kinder, more generous, more patient bar. It’s worth the effort,” Saldaña said. “Civility at work will make us better lawyers for our clients and better colleagues, and it will carry over into our personal lives, too.”

Guidepost 3: “Stay engaged, be passionate, and keep faith in our constitutional system even when its shortcomings discourage you.”

In light of the “growing disillusionment with our constitutional system and unprecedented threats to the rule of law,” it can be easy to condemn the system as broken and disengage, but Saldaña encouraged students to do the opposite—to maintain their faith.

“The law isn’t always fair, judges aren’t always right, and the rule of law is sometimes broken,” she said. “But as lawyers, we are in a unique position to change things, to labor for our nation so it builds into a more perfect union. Our country needs bright young attorneys like you to stay engaged, be passionate, and keep faith in our constitutional system even when its shortcomings discourage you.”

And this faith doesn’t need to be blind, Saldaña encouraged. “We don’t have to accept the status quo: to the contrary, thoughtful criticism is a patriotic act. Without it, we wouldn’t have the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and all the other campaigns that have bent the arc of justice so that our country—and our profession—become more just and inclusive.”

Click here to see 2023 Law Center Commencement Photo Gallery.

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