Traditionally, each court hosting an induction ceremony for new attorneys asks the individual performing highest on the Bar exam to speak. This spring, The Hon. Craig C. Villanti, chief judge of the Florida Second District Court of Appeal, invited Maryam Saleh, a recent Western Michigan University Cooley Law School graduate and top Bar performer in the district, to speak on behalf of the attorneys being sworn in that day. The Second District covers 14 counties in five judicial circuits. There are five total District Courts of Appeal in Florida.
We are proud and honored of Maryam and her accomplishments. Below is her speech from May 9, 2016, along with video excerpts about her journey in life, in law school, and what drives her going forward.
Acting Chief Judge, your honors, may it please the court. My name is Maryam Saleh, and I am incredibly honored to stand before you today as a representative of the new class of lawyers being sworn into practice.
When Chief Judge Villanti called me and asked me to speak today, I was so excited I said yes without hesitation. A few days later, I realized what I had gotten myself into — I know they say lawyers love to talk, but I’d much rather make a compelling argument on paper than stand behind a podium and do it, so bear with me if I stumble through the next few minutes.
To my fellow new attorneys — congratulations on knowing enough about UCC-3 and limited partnerships to make it this far. Whether you have dreamt of practicing law your entire life or if becoming an attorney is just one step toward the fulfillment of a larger dream, today is the culmination of several years of hard work and dedication. And we should all be immensely proud of our accomplishments.
A few minutes ago, we made the following pledge: “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”
This sentence is perhaps the truest embodiment of my journey to the law and my aspirations beyond it.
Being an attorney is the newest chapter in the story of my life, and it was my family history and my religious and moral upbringing that steered my storyline in this direction. I am the daughter of immigrants who, more than 35 years ago, left the politically repressive environment in their home country of Syria and eventually made their way to the United States, where they raised their four daughters to be fearless, proud, driven, and compassionate.
For as long as I can remember, my father has pushed my sisters and me to excel, confident that if we set our minds to it, we could create lasting change in this world. My mother, whose background is in education, was a pillar of support and encouragement through every step of our academic endeavors and a never-ending source of emotional and spiritual nurturing. With every step we took, my parents reminded us to be mindful of the big picture: we were not working solely for personal accomplishment — the next degree, a new car, or a suburban house — but for the greater good, an admittedly abstract concept that, in my context at least, meant that my contribution to the betterment of “humanity” here in the United States would additionally include tackling the specific challenges facing the Muslim-American community, to which I also belonged. The constitutionally enshrined freedoms and the rule of law in the United States were an opportunity and an imperative to keep fighting against oppression, not an excuse to become comfortably apathetic.
Throughout my upbringing, my parents ensured that I remained mindful of various social justice issues. One issue I remember quite distinctly is the plight of my aunt’s husband, who was a political prisoner in Syria for 20 years. My first exposure to the cause of the defenseless and oppressed was a personal family connection, and consistently throughout my childhood, my father reminded me to pray for his brother-in-law’s release and the release of countless other prisoners of conscious in Syria and around the world.
My dad’s brother-in-law was thankfully released from detention in 2002, around the same time another series of transformative events began to take place. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, as America struggled to deal with terrorism and seemingly endless cycles of war around the world, the Muslim community in America and abroad began to face political and social backlash, and my childhood was tainted by events like the passage of the PATRIOT Act and the American invasion of Iraq. Topics such as increased government surveillance of Muslim communities and the implications of American involvement in the Middle East made for sobering but lively dinnertime discussion at home, which taught me to be conscious of the complexities inherent in constant pursuit of “security” by the powerful, which too often led to the suffering of the defenseless.
I know that in this, my personal experience and drive are not unique. Over the course of the past few years, I’ve talked to many budding attorneys whose self-stated goal in entering the law is impacting societal change or advocating on behalf of the defenseless. And I’m sure reciting this oath just now renewed in us all the sense of working toward a noble cause. But I want to take a few minutes to talk about how this oath translates into practice as we venture into our legal careers.
At the micro-level as individual attorneys, there is much we can do. For me personally, I have worked to fulfill this pledge for the last year or so by working at a civil rights nonprofit — the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida — where we assist individuals fleeing persecution in their country of origin as well as victims of growing Islamophobia in the state of Florida. While the opportunities in the nonprofit sector to serve the underrepresented are plenty, there is also a lot of room for this type of advocacy among private attorneys. Rule 4-6.1 of the Florida Rules of Professional Responsibility states that we have a responsibility to provide pro bono legal services to poor clients; it sets an aspirational annual goal of 20 hours of pro bono service or a $350 payment to a legal aid organization. We can all take this aspirational goal and make it mandatory upon ourselves — we can start by getting involved in our local pro bono committees and connecting with legal aid offices and nonprofit organizations. My experience so far has been that there are many more indigent clients in the state of Florida than people willing to help them at no cost.
And as we advocate for individual clients, we must also work toward the resolution of macro-level issues as well. We cannot hope to alleviate the suffering of marginalized communities without addressing the overarching problems that have contributed to their relative impotence. Even though it may be controversial or unpopular at times, let us take a definite stance on societal issues impacting the oppressed such as systemic racism, economic disparity, and what often amounts to the criminalization of homelessness and mental illness.
I mentioned earlier that my religious background is an influential factor in the reason I am a lawyer who firmly believes in advocating for justice for all, but especially for the downtrodden. In the Oath of Attorney, I see echoes of a teaching in my Islamic faith tradition that we ought to stand with both the oppressor and the oppressed. While it’s pretty obvious why we’re taught to support the oppressed, it may be less clear what it means to stand with the oppressor. We stand with the oppressor by preventing him from oppressing another person, by refusing to be silent when we witness oppression. As officers of the court, we can do this by addressing unethical practices we see from other attorneys, either by engaging in straightforward conversations with one another or reporting wrongful conduct to the Florida Bar, if the situation so requires. On the macro-level, we can prevent oppression by working toward larger causes to reduce political and social marginalization and exclusion — we should never be afraid to take a public stance on systemic practices we believe are harming a certain group of people. Large-scale oppression can only become obsolete if we challenge it collectively, and that is a shared responsibility we ought to take seriously. Let us pledge not only to stand up for the defenseless and oppressed, but also to hold each other accountable when it comes to acting on that promise.
I will leave you with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a true revolutionary whose struggle for civil rights we often honor but whose values and ideas our society has yet to truly commit to. Dr. King once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Now that we have officially joined the ranks of Florida’s legal community, let us go out and be exceptional attorneys, but we should remember that exceptional work is impossible unless we are good people too. Congratulations once again, and thank you.