Chief justice talks to law grads about innovation

ELON — The first class of the Elon University School of Law’s accelerated track graduated Saturday Dec. 16, and graduates heard from the state’s chief justice about the deep roots of their profession and its need for innovation.

“You are already the beneficiaries of innovation within the law thanks to Elon Law School’s decision to switch from three years of classes to two and a half, and to require a residency in which students are required to do real-life legal work,” keynote speaker N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin said. “I commend Dean [Luke] Bierman and all of Elon’s administrators for their willingness to try out new methods in legal education in the pursuit of excellence. As lawyers, you should embrace that same attitude.”

In his remarks, Bierman said it was fitting that outgoing Elon President Leo Lambert’s last law school graduation as president was the first of the new curriculum he helped launch.

The 111 graduates were the first to go through the seven-trimester, two-and-a-half-year curriculum Elon switched to in fall 2015 that lets students graduate in December in time to take the bar exam in February. The timing lets graduates look for jobs in the spring while graduates from other law schools are studying for the bar in July.

Students also have to take full-time residencies with law firms to give them hands-on experience with working professionals.

“We worked at prestigious law firms, we worked on Capitol Hill, we proposed legislation,” said graduate Jordan Thompson, who spoke for his class. “We have pushed the boundaries for what a law student should be.”

Thompson also remembered and praised classmate Juma Jackson and associate professor Michael Rich, who both died from illnesses in 2016.

Martin, the youngest chief justice in North Carolina history when he was appointed at the age of 35, talked about the roots of the legal profession, especially in the United States.

“You are joining an ancient and noble profession,” Martin said. “Half the signatures on the U.S. Constitution come from lawyers.”

And Martin talked about the ongoing role lawyers have in maintaining the republic.

“The study and practice of law promotes many ideals that are necessary for a free society to flourish,” Martin said, “the ability to understand the arguments that support each conflicting point of view, to be civil and peaceful when discussing our disagreements, and to demand fair process for all individuals, especially those who are unpopular.”

Martin told the new lawyers not to run from technology, but to use it to further their professional lives and serve the public.

“Lawyer innovators can harness technology to better serve the public and increase access to justice,” Martin said.

Technology also brings new legal questions up, Martin said, like the ethics of using the internet to expand a lawyer’s client base or privacy rights on mobile devices or the “cloud.”

“Lawyers not only use the law,” Martin said, “they have a role to play in shaping it.”

Reporter Isaac Groves can be reached at or 336-506-3045. Follow him on Twitter at @tnigroves.

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