Shawn Holley Encourages Entering Class to 'find your passion in the law'
At Southwestern's First-year Orientation last week, keynote speaker Shawn Holley '88 told the new entering class, "Get to know the professors and administrators and let them get to know you. I might not have taken the law clerk job [that changed my life] if I hadn't been encouraged to by the professors and administrators who knew me. They knew me better than I knew myself."
In her inspiring - and entertaining - remarks, she shared her own experiences as a student and practitioner, and urged the new 1Ls to take advantage of opportunities and mentors to find what inspires their passion in the law. The following are excerpts from her remarks:
Good evening. It is wonderful to be here on such a special and important occasion. Today officially marks the beginning of your formal legal education.
But the truth is, you have been training to be a lawyer your entire life: When you were an infant and you screamed at the top of your lungs because you were hungry, you were vociferously advocating for what you wanted. When you were 8 years old and successfully convinced your mom that it was your sister and not you who spilled the honey-nut cheerios all over the floor (even though it was really you), you were demonstrating your skills of persuasion. And when you were 12 years old and you stood up to the class bully on behalf of another kid who was too small or too meek to stand up for himself, you were a defender and a champion for justice. All of these instincts and skills are already within you. Now you will begin to learn the tools of the trade: the procedural and substantive rules of law which will teach you to channel your innate talent into a successful career as a lawyer.
I don't want to spend too much time talking about me, because this is really about you. But I want to tell you a bit about my experience here at Southwestern and how it led me to the place where I am now.
I will never forget my first day here at Southwestern. My very first class was Civil Procedure taught by Professor Thomas Kallay. When we entered the classroom, Professor Kallay wasn't there yet, so we were all talking and laughing. There was an excited and nervous energy in the room. We all expected that our professor would come in and then spend the first day telling us what civil procedure WAS, what would be expected of us throughout the year, we might go over the syllabus, have a question and answer session, maybe introduce ourselves and then probably get to leave early.
Well that's not at all what happened.
Professor Kallay was a very serious, older, accomplished, brilliant man. He walked into the classroom in a gray suit and dark tie, completely quiet and serious. He made eye contact with no one. Slowly but surely the class started to quiet down as he approached the podium, put on his glasses and opened the case book. He didn't look up. By this time, the room was totally silent and you could have heard a pin drop. Professor Kallay looked up into the crowd of law students and very calmly said "Mr. Cohen, what was the issue and ruling in the case of something something vs. something something?" Panic spread throughout the room as people dug their case books out of their back packs, thankful that they weren't Mr. Cohen!
I said to myself then, "DOROTHY, YOU'RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE."
From that day forward, I was prepared. Several days later, Professor Kallay called on me, and I was ready for him. I knew the answers to his questions and I understood the material. I worked hard in Professor Kallay's class and in all my classes. And guess what? I made the Dean's List! My law school experience was amazing. I had brilliant professors who made the law interesting, who engaged the class and who made us hungry and curious.
At the end of my second year, I interviewed with various civil law firms and government offices hiring summer associates and law clerks. I got a number of interviews, but the most interesting interview was with the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office. With the encouragement of the administration here at Southwestern, I decided to take their job offer over the other offers. And that job as a public defender law clerk changed my life.
My initial assignment was to work in Dept. 30 at the downtown Criminal Courts Building. Dept. 30 is a gigantic courtroom where defendants who have just been arrested for felony cases see the judge for the first time at a hearing called the arraignment. Our job, as public defender law clerks, was to go into the holding cell to interview the defendants. It was hot and loud and it smelled bad. It was 1987, so almost everyone was charged with possession of rock cocaine. When I talked to each of the defendants, they would say, 'I'm guilty and I want to plead guilty.' We would tell them that they would be able to plead guilty after talking to their public defender later, but that our job was to get their story about what had happened at the time of their arrest.
They each told a variation of the same story and I would then read them the police report. I was outraged! I had learned in Criminal Procedure and Constitutional Law that if the police were doing what each of the defendants was reporting, it was a violation of the 4th amendment of the Constitution. I knew that the police were not permitted to search these men without probable cause, and it was clear that they knew that, which is why they had made up a story about the defendants throwing the rock cocaine on the ground right in front of them. I understood that this was the 'plain view' doctrine, and that if the defendants had actually done that, then there would not have been any constitutional violation at all!
I was intrigued. Up until that point, I had planned to become a sports agent. But suddenly, the idea of negotiating some term in an athlete's contract seemed insignificant in contrast with the concepts of liberty and justice. I mean, we were actually interpreting and relying upon THE CONSTITUTION. This was MAJOR. I decided I wanted to become a public defender. When I took and passed the bar the following year, I became a public defender, and I loved practically every minute of my five years with the office. Johnnie Cochran saw me in court one day and recruited me to come to his firm. I accepted the offer and five months later, I was part of the O.J. Simpson defense team.
Though that may seem like a special and unique experience, it doesn't have to be. Here are the lessons to take from that story:
- Find your passion. Figure out what interests you and what you're good at. These 2 or 3 or 4 years of law school are not just about learning the law. They are also all about finding where your talents and interests lie. (I loved criminal law and criminal procedure and constitutional law, and that's where I found that I thrived.)
- Consult with the administrators and professors here. Get to know them and let them get to know you. I might not have taken the law clerk job at the Public Defender's Office if I hadn't been encouraged to take the job by the professors and administrators who knew me. They knew me better than I knew myself. I could never have been happy as a sports agent!
At the end of it all, if you're focused and lucky, you will have found an area of the law that you truly love. That love will cause you to be passionate about what you do. And that passion will be infectious, and those who see it will want to hire you. Employers will want to hire you. Clients will want to hire you. And you will be happy, because you will be doing what you love and loving what you do.
You have much to be proud of here today. Over the years, you have met dozens and dozens of people who said "I'm gonna go to law school" or "I'm gonna be a lawyer." But most of those people never ended up doing it. YOU DID IT. This is something about which you should be very proud.
Shawn Holley is a partner at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP, a boutique entertainment and business litigation firm in Santa Monica. With more than 60 trials to her credit, she is the rare trial attorney who practices in both civil and criminal litigation. She began her career in the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office, and five years later, was recruited into the private sector by Johnnie Cochran, eventually serving as Managing Partner of The Cochran Firm in Los Angeles and head of its national Criminal Defense Section, where she was a highly visible member of the O.J. Simpson defense team. Her long roster of recent high profile clients includes Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Reggie Bush, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard, and Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt, among numerous others.
A prolific legal commentator, Ms. Holley has served as chief legal correspondent for the E! Network and on-air legal analyst for KABC Eyewitness News, and has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, PrimeTime Live, Court TV, Fox News and CNN, as well as Fox TV's Power of Attorney and MTV's The Verdict. On the academic side, she is a lecturer for Cardozo Law School's Intensive Trial Advocacy Program and a frequent guest speaker at Southwestern and other law schools. Ms. Holley has been featured on many "Top Lawyer" lists, including The Hollywood Reporter's "Power Lawyers" and the Daily Journal's "Top Women Lawyers" this past year. A Los Angeles native, Ms. Holley graduated from UCLA before earning her law degree at Southwestern. She was recently honored as 2013 Outstanding Alumna by Southwestern's Black Law Students Association.