The Honorable Roger L. Gregory didn’t come to William & Mary Law School’s Commencement ceremony on May 12 with a prepared speech in hand, but he carried with him something better. Words of wisdom directly from the heart.
And from experience.
Gregory, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, shared several inspiring stories with graduates and their families, in particular his first jury trial. He was a third-year law student at the University of Michigan, volunteering for Legal Aid in Ann Arbor, and he was assigned a case in a landlord dispute.
Trouble was, the judge didn’t want a student in his courtroom. But Gregory was the only one prepared to argue the case.
“Judges don’t like their jury days to be messed up,” Gregory remembered. “So he said [to the lawyers in the room], ‘All right, I’ll let him go forward, but if he makes one mistake I am going to sit him down.’”
Gregory did handle the case, despite the judge’s assessment that he wasn’t worthy. He then urged the Class of 2019 to go out and do likewise, reminding them of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s eternal question, “What needs to be done?”
“Carlyle said that the mission in life is not to see what lies dimly in the distance,” Gregory said. “This mission in life is to do what is clearly at hand.”
It’s advice that Gregory has followed throughout his own journey. His career has taken him from law school in 1978 to Detroit, where he become the first African American attorney at Butzel, Long, Gust, Klein & Van Zile. Two years later, he started a long career at Hunton & Williams in Richmond at the invitation of Taylor Reveley, who would go on to serve as Dean of William & Mary Law School and as the 27th President of William & Mary.
In 2000, President Clinton appointed Gregory to the United States Court of Appeals in a recess appointment, and in July 2001, President Bush commissioned his lifetime appointment as federal judge. Gregory is the only appellate judge in American history to have ever been nominated by presidents of both parties. He became the first African American Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 2016.
During his remarks, Judge Gregory considered the famous William & Mary Law School mace resting next to him at the podium.
“Just like that mace led you in here today, let the rule of law be your cadence,” he told the graduates. “When others dance to another tune, when others find music that is inconsistent with justice, when they deal with undemocratic principles, do not be carried away by it. I want you to walk to the tune of justice, no matter how dim or distant that call might be. Don’t listen to the discordant voices of those who will ask you to move forward for quickness and to substitute integrity for power. No, you must be committed to something more than that.”
With candor, Judge Gregory admitted that his generation left a great deal of things on the graduates’ plates—things that should have been taken care of.
“Today the plate is still full, but you know what? You are qualified,” Gregory said. “And I believe in you, because I see your wonderful work in law clerks every day. You’re brighter and smarter than we were.”
Nearing the end of his remarks, Gregory paid homage to the founders of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences when he advised the Class of 2019 to “rise above the labyrinth,” to see the entire structure so that all parts begin to lose their separateness, and everyone from high to low feels included.
“Somebody has to be blessed because you graduated today,” he said. “You don’t know the person, but there’s someone out there in the world you are going to meet…and they are going to say ‘I’m glad she or he went to law school, because there’s something about them that made them so great and wonderful.’”
Reacting to Judge Gregory’s words with great applause, the Class of 2019 clearly couldn’t wait to get started.
Thomas Jefferson founded William & Mary Law School in 1779 to train leaders for the new nation. Now in its third century, America's oldest law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.