Preet Bharara’s Speech at Harvard Law School Class Day 2014

Preet Bharara’s Speech at Harvard Law School Class Day 2014

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Dean Minow, distinguished
faculty, proud parents, family, friends, and members of the
Harvard Law School Class of 2014, congratulations to you. You have so much to be
proud of, and so very much to be grateful for. I want to congratulate by name
the four most awesome members of the class of
2014, because they used to work for me– Edeli
Rivera, Kyle Wirshba, Heather Alpino, and Claire Guehenno. Congratulations. This is a proud day
for everyone who is here– but for the
parents, I think, especially. And not just for the
graduates’ parents, it turns out that my
own parents are here. My mom and dad are
seated in the third row. You can clap for my parents. So a few months
ago, my dad calls me when he sees the announcement
that Harvard Law School put out about the program. And he tells me that he and Mom
were going to come up for it. And I say to him, “Dad,
look, I’m really touched. But you don’t have to drive
all the way up from New Jersey. You just had knee
surgery–it’s a long haul. It’s fine, Dad. Again, I’m touched, but
don’t worry about it.” My dad gets all serious
and he says to me, “Preet. How could I not come and
miss a once in a lifetime chance– once in
a lifetime chance to see the Mindy Kaling?” [LAUGHTER] Look, that’s fine. Mindy’s parents
are here to see me. So yes, we’ve got two
Indian Americans today for the price of one. Apparently, it’s India
Day at Harvard Law School. I hope that you enjoy the Lamb
Vindaloo and the Chicken Tikka Masala that will
be served after. Not to belabor the
point, but I am curious about how the decision
making process worked. Like, how did that
meeting go exactly? I imagine these guys, your class
marshals, were sitting around and someone says, “we got the
US Attorney, Preet Bharara, is coming, and then another
class marshals said, “what, you know– I was just thinking,
as long as we’re going Indian, maybe we should
have a funny Indian? You know.” Again, don’t get me wrong,
I love the Mindy Kaling, but I can’t help but get
the feeling that Harvard was a little concerned,
asking themselves, “can Bharara really
carry the whole program?” And obviously, it
determined, no. So, you know, I’m a little hurt,
because I did some research, and I understand that
two years ago, you asked Attorney
General Eric Holder to be your class day speaker. Apparently you did not feel the
need to also invite Chris Rock. And last year– and last
year, you had Jeffrey Toobin, and you did not hedge your
bets with Jerry Seinfeld. So I’m just, I’m just saying–
but it’s OK, I will do my best. I’ll do the best that I can. It really is, though,
an honor to be here. I have had an unexpectedly
productive trip so far. I arrived last evening,
stopped by the Business School, dropped off a
couple of subpoenas, arrested three guys
for insider trading, and finished off the evening
sipping a scorpion bowl, at the Kong. By the way, I hope you’ve gotten
to know your Business School colleagues, because they–
they are your future clients. So anyway, I’m sitting at the
Hong Kong restaurant, which I will note, has changed, like
not at all in the 24 years since I used to be
a regular patron when I was in the college. And so I’m sipping
the scorpion bowl through that ridiculous kiddie
straw that they give you, and reviewing my
prepared text for today, which was replete
with lofty quotations from Oliver Wendell
Holmes and Felix Frankfurter and, of
course, one Mr. Langdell. And then I had what people
call a moment of clarity. That will happen to you when
you drink a scorpion bowl. And the moment of
clarity was this, you don’t really want or
need me to read and quote from legal scripture. Not on Class Day, at
least, and especially when you haven’t even
given us caps and gowns. So instead, what I
thought I would do, is rather than speak
esoterically about the law, I would speak more
pragmatically about how to be successful and
happy in law practice. Now that is not so
easy as it sounds– to be both successful
and happy as a lawyer. You may be asking
yourself, what should I be focused on my first job? Pleasing the partner? Should I be networking? Getting clients? Setting myself up
for the next job? A simple and excellent answer
is actually provided by a scene from one of the greatest
Martin Scorsese movies made– it’s called The Departed. If you haven’t seen
it, you should see it. It’s set around here
in the Boston area, and it’s loosely based on
notorious mobster Whitey Bulger. So you can see why I
might like this film. Mark Wahlberg is in the
movie, and he plays a cop. And there’s a scene where
a law enforcement officer– operation goes south, and
Wahlberg’s character is upset and he starts asking questions. And somebody says to
Wahlberg, who the “F” are you? And Wahlberg says, “I’m
the guy who does his job, you must be the other guy.” And I submit that there is
more wise career counsel in that short scene,
that in many volumes that you might read. Because that is where
your focus should always be– being the guy who does
his job– whether you’re an associate, a law clerk, an
assistant DA, a public defender or anything else. Nothing else matters,
but doing your job and doing it well every
day, even when it’s hard, even when it’s tedious,
even when it’s dull, even when the work seems small
and beneath your brand name schooling and god-given talent. It means being the guy
who does his job even when no one is looking
and no one will know the good ideas
came from you. If you do that, not only the
next job but your entire career will take care of itself. Trust me on that. Let me put it a different
way, almost exactly four years ago today, Philadelphia
Phillies pitcher, Roy Halladay, achieved one of the most
rare and difficult things in all of sports. He pitched a perfect game. Nine innings, no hits,
no walks, 27 up, 27 down. He was perfect. And he is in the history
books because of it. Then, four months later, on
October 6th of that year, in the very same
season, Halladay threw a no-hitter– not quite
perfect, but pretty darn close. He did it, by the way,
in a playoff game. In all of baseball
history, only two people have ever thrown a no-hitter
in the post season. Just two. The Phillies pitching
coach was asked by a reporter what advice
he had given his Ace. And the coach said
that he’d given Roy Halladay a
simple instruction. He said “go out there
and try to be good. If you just go out there
and try to be good, you’ve got a chance
to be great.” And that is literally the
best advice I have ever heard. It has stayed with me, and
I hope it stays with you. I think there is a tendency
for people like you who are so successful and
so accomplished and so credentialed, to think every
endeavor is like a baseball game in which you’re going to
go out and pitch a perfect game. But it doesn’t work that way. You should have
high aspirations. You should want to be
monumentally successful. But you’ve got to do
it one pitch at a time. It sounds cliche, but you’ve got
to do it one pitch at a time. Pitch, after pitch,
after pitch– that’s what develops into
a perfect game, or by analogy, an
outstanding career. And by the way, no one who
ever pitched a perfect game in baseball went to the mound
that day expecting to do so. Because not only is
that unrealistic, it is the height of arrogance. And yet I see people all the
time make that very mistake. They want to be great before
they’ve learned how to be good. They want to be
on the big matter, before they’ve
handled a small one. They want to try a case before
they’ve argued a motion. They want to be generals before
they have been good soldiers. But first, I submit, you have
to learn some craft– actually learn how to practice law in
whatever area you first pick. Craft and competence will always
matter more than connections. But in a lot of
places, people often behave in a way that
suggests the reverse is true. So learn some craft. You’ll stumble. It won’t always go great. It didn’t for me. I remember the first major
deposition I ever took, I couldn’t figure out how
to ask a proper question. It got so bad, that the
adversary asked for a break and then apologized
to the court reporter. And I didn’t understand what
he was apologizing about. And I realized he was
apologizing for me. So that kind of
hurt a little bit. I never forgot that. But I got better. And you will, too. And once you have learned your
craft, and learned it well, you will be in
good stead always. And I guarantee, you will be
swimming in opportunities. Let’s talk about
humility for a moment. Humility, I think,
is underrepresented and undervalued in law
practice, which is too bad. So why is humility important? Mostly, so you don’t
become unbearable. And also, because it
will keep you open-minded and striving to
always do better. So find someone in your life
who will help keep you humble. Luckily, I have an
abundance of those people in my own life– my
daughter, for example. A quick true story,
she is now 13, but three years ago, we had
just won a big white collar case and there was a nice profile
about her dad in the New York Times, and I thought, “I should
have my daughter read this so she can be proud of Dad.” So she begrudgingly read
the article and at the end, I recall, that it ends
with a quote for me that’s very sort of finger-waggy
and chest-thumpy about how we’re not going
to stop fighting against Wall Street crime. So my daughter finishes
reading the article, looks up, and I’m waiting to
see what my daughter’s going to say, and how proud
she is of her father. And she said, rolling
her eyes slightly, and this is a direct
quote– “Daddy, why are you such a drama queen?” So be sure you have people
like that in your life. If you don’t, my
daughter is available. A part of humility,
by the way, is becoming comfortable
with self-doubt. It took me awhile
to appreciate this. You’d think when I became the
US Attorney for the Southern District of New York,
a storied institutions in 1789, that I said to
myself, “well it’s about time. Finally, I can fix 220 years
of inferior leadership.” No, not quite. Here’s how I did feel– I
felt nervous, and afraid, and unworthy. I was terrified that
I might not live up to the tradition of
that great place, that I might not ultimately
measure up to the job, that I would be a
disappointment to the people who had supported me. There’s 100 years of
US Attorneys portraits on the hallway wall
leading up to my office. And I walk by them
every day, and they appear to be telling me every
morning, “don’t screw it up, kid.” And so even now, after
almost five years that have gone pretty well, I
get nervous and afraid still. And if I ever lose
that feeling, I think that’s the day
that I should step down. Don’t get me wrong. I do have self-confidence also. But at the same time, and
on a fairly frequent basis, roaring self-doubt. But you’ll find that
self-doubt in moderation is animating and
motivating, not paralyzing. In my view, leaders
who have purged themselves of all
self-doubt will not be leaders for long,
and in my view, are dangerous while in command. I’ve learned over
time that self-doubt is my friend and
arrogance my enemy. Now let’s talk
about something that will bring you down
from time to time. It’s called criticism. So brace yourself, because you
will receive it– especially if you rise high, or take
a stand on something. And it will hurt. It will even sting. Now there are some people
in the world who are not bothered by criticism,
for whom everything just rolls right off their back. Those are Type B people. But criticism will
bother you a lot because you are Type A people. And I know what you guys
are like, because I’m a little bit that way myself. You are the kind of people who
are super competitive, even when playing board
games with children. By the way, there’s
nothing wrong with that. A kid’s gotta learn. The key, I think, to
learn, is to learn which criticism to take to
heart to make yourself better and to improve, and which
criticism to laugh off, which criticism is well
placed, and which is foolish. Trust me, I’ve
gotten to know a lot about criticism in this job. Sometimes, just doing your
job and doing the right thing will provoke criticism. I’ve been criticized
from the left. I’ve been criticized
from the right. I’ve been criticized
by various governments. I’ve been banned from Russia. That’s true. Sometimes, criticism
is valid and you have to take it seriously
and be smart about it. The point is, don’t be
dismissive about criticism, but be discerning about it. Here’s another quick story. So you may have
heard, some of you, about a case we brought
last year in which the State Department arrested a mid-level
Indian diplomat female, Devyani Khobragade, for visa fraud in
connection with lies about she would ultimately pay
her domestic worker. Not the crime of the
century, but a serious crime nonetheless. That’s why the State
Department opened the case. That’s why the State
Department investigated it. That’s why the career agents
in the State Department asked career
prosecutors in my office to approve criminal charges. So that case basically caused
an international incident. Now putting aside disputes
about the merits of the case, somehow the Indian government
and the Indian press decided that the
case was brought by me, an Indian-American,
for all manner of bad personal reasons. Never mind that the case was
initiated and investigated by career law
enforcement officials, and that I became
personally aware of it only a day or two before the
arrest had been scheduled. Talk show host in India
took to calling me a self-loathing Indian,
who made it a point to go after people from
the country of his birth. Which was a bit odd, since the
alleged victim was also Indian. An Indian official
basically asked on television, who the
hell is Preet Bharara? And the criticism got
increasingly intense over time– which might
not have bothered me so much, except that it
bothered my parents, who came from India to
this country as adults. And that was tough,
because it bothered them. And then it bothered
me again when I had to explain
to my daughter, who overheard a conversation in
the house, of what it meant to be called an Uncle Tom–
because that’s what I was being called by journalists
in South Asia. So that was not so pleasant. And I will admit
that I was upset, as I think the normal
human being might be. But then as the accusations
got more and more absurd, they became downright
comical, and I got some of my perspective back. After all, Indian
critics were angry because even though
I hail from India, I appear to be
going out of my way to act American and serve the
interests of America, which was also kind of odd
because I am American, and the words United States
are actually in my title. And then I saw this line of
attack in the foreign press, and in Syria’s
press, it was written that Bharara had
undertaken this case to quote, “serve his
white masters,” presumably Eric Holder and Barack Obama. So you get my point. So that is an example of
criticism that is stupid. And I realized,
by the way, that I had a ready response to the
Indian official who asked, who the hell is Preet Bharara? And it’s this– “I’m the
guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.” A couple of final
general points. Work for good people. Don’t work for jerks, no
matter how smart and talented you think they are. And don’t be a jerk yourself. Also, while you’re making
your career happen, you’re allowed to have fun,
even if the job at hand is deadly serious. We have fun at the
US Attorney’s Office, because we never take
ourselves too seriously. I think that’s important. Humorlessness correlates
directly with pomposity, and I believe,
also with failure. So now I realize that
a lot of this advice seems not unique to
the practice of law. Well there’s a reason for that. The practice of law is a
lot like any other endeavor in life. It can be messy, and
difficult, and stressful, but the most important
advice is the same. Do your job and be humble. Work for good people and be
good to those who work for you. Accept criticism,
unless it’s foolish. Have fun and embrace humor. Like other endeavors,
the practice of law is about each pitch– about
going out there and trying to be good every day
instead of trying to pitch a perfect
game on your first try. But I do want to conclude
with a thought that is particular to
the practice of law, especially for a Harvard
Law School graduate. And it’s this– the
degree you’re receiving is a precious and powerful gift. Yes, I know you have
worked very hard, but it is a gift nonetheless. So don’t squander it. There are people who would
give a limb for the gift that you are getting this week. And you should be exceptionally
proud of the career that you have chosen. Now, I know that not
everyone loves lawyers, and I know that we lawyers
are, as a group, much maligned. But I continue to believe in the
quaint and uncommon view, that to become a lawyer is to
join a noble profession. I continue to believe also, that
there is no one better situated to prevent cruelty, promote
equality, and preserve liberty, than the person
who has genuinely dedicated himself or herself
to becoming both a master and a servant of the law. The potential power
of a law degree is, I believe, unmatched
in American society. No one is better situated
to stand up for an ideal, or expose corruption,
or champion underdogs, or defend unalienable rights. I think it is not
an overstatement to suggest that the
power of your degree gives you a degree of
power that few possess, fewer know how to use,
and fewer still know how to put to good purpose. People spend their entire
lives waiting for the chance to do something meaningful– to
make a difference in the world. For so many people,
too many people, that moment never comes. But you, simply by virtue
of your new law degree, from Harvard no less,
will have that opportunity every single day. And I hope and pray
that you will seize it. The world needs you to seize it. Now, I was trying to make
it through this speech without quoting anyone more
distinguished than Mark Wahlberg, but I saw–
and maybe some of you have not seen the sad
news this morning– that beloved American author
and poet, Maya Angelou, had passed away. And though she is gone, her
words will always be with us. And among the very
many beautiful words she has strung together
where these– “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go
through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to
throw something back.” So please, go out there
and just try to be good. Do it one pitch at a time. And don’t forget to
throw something back. The world is waiting
for all of you. Good luck.

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