University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author Bryan Stevenson tells UW Law students: 'Your hope is essential to creating justice'

  Bryan Stevenson addresses UW Law students

Bryan Stevenson, the public interest attorney and author, was on campus Monday to discuss his 30-year career litigating on behalf of death row prisoners, juvenile offenders, and people who have been wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes.

UW-Madison selected Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” for its annual common-book program, Go Big Read. As part of the program, more than 5,000 free copies of “Just Mercy” were distributed to UW freshmen, and because the book deals with criminal justice, incoming law students received complimentary copies at their orientation, too.

Before delivering a campuswide Go Big Read address, Stevenson stopped by the Law School to participate in “What I’m Doing With My Law Degree,” an ongoing speaker series designed to inform law students about career options after graduation. In a question-and-answer session with Dean Margaret Raymond, Stevenson spoke of changing the world.

Through the stories of his clients, “Just Mercy” chronicles Stevenson’s efforts to create justice — by abolishing the death penalty, stemming the tide of mass incarceration, ending life without parole sentences for children, and confronting the nation’s history of racial and economic discrimination. “And I am persuaded that we can do these things in this country, maybe in my lifetime,” he told his audience, which packed the Law School’s Godfrey & Kahn Hall and two overflow rooms.

First-year law student Michelle Brandemuehl says that, for her, Stevenson’s visit was perfectly timed.

  Stevenson with Michelle Brandemuehl

“I’m two months into my law school experience, and the stress has been mounting. For the first time, I found myself worrying about whether I could last three years,” she said. “Bryan Stevenson reminded me why I came here and what my ultimate goal is, and that is to learn to use the law and to speak its language so I can advocate on behalf of so many people who are unfairly caught in the criminal justice system.”

Stevenson last appeared on campus to present the 2014 Kastenmeier Lecture to a Law School audience. “Just Mercy,” released the week prior to that talk, had premiered at number 10 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

In the year since his Kastenmeier visit, accolades for Stevenson’s book and his life’s work have never stopped pouring in: Time magazine named him to its annual list of 100 Most Influential People last spring, while “Just Mercy” won the Carnegie Medal and the NAACP Image Award, both for nonfiction. The book appeared on The New York Times Best Books of the Year list, and received enthusiastic reviews in major publications like The Washington Post and Esquire.

Here are some highlights from his message to law students:

On the importance of hope. “Oftentimes what happens when you get in law school is you get so pushed into managing the stress of the curriculum. The world gets complicated, the barriers to justice are more multifaceted than we thought, and the obstacles to reform are more complex. But the hope to create justice has got to remain the same, or even get stronger. If you become hopeless about what you can do, then I would say you need to recover your hope. Your hope is essential.”

On moving from law school to legal practice. “I would tell anybody about to graduate from law school to make sure you find your law school admissions essay, and you read it. Make sure that the kind of lawyer you’re about to become is the kind of lawyer you wanted to become — or that you have some good reasons for the change of plans. And I think sometimes when you read your essays, they may seem a little naive, but they speak to where your heart is. That’s important enough, and it’s important to check.”

On the hearts and minds of lawyers. “I think you have to have good ideas in your mind. You have to be strategic, and you have to be informed. I want the people I work with to be really thoughtful and smart. But ultimately, the ideas in our minds are not enough to change the world, because it’s really what’s in your heart that gets you to do the things that seem a little dangerous, that seem a little edgy, that push you into these spaces that are uncomfortable. Ideas are meaningless unless fueled by some conviction in our hearts.”


Submitted by Tammy Kempfert on November 3, 2015

This article appears in the categories: Features

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