SARATOGA SPRINGS — Ten days after she convinced a civil jury in Manhattan to find that former President Donald Trump sexually abused columnist E. Jean Carroll and defamed her, attorney Roberta A. Kaplan advised Albany Law School’s graduating class Friday to “be brave” and take on challenges in their future legal professions.
Citing gun violence, threats to democracy, climate changes, soaring income inequality and an increase in hate crimes, among other issues, Kaplan told the class of 202 graduates at Albany Law School’s 172nd commencement ceremony that they were exiting law school at one of the most unsettled moments in the nation’s history.
“The rule of law has taken a beating and has never looked more tenuous, but it is far too easy to simply give up and become cynical, to decide that nothing really matters and that there is nothing we can do to fix it,” said Kaplan during the ceremony at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
“As lawyers, you have a duty to act… don’t be passive. You have agency now. Use it. So when you see a problem, don’t just wait for a solution to magically present itself. Instead ask yourself, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when? ‘ ”
On May 9, a nine-member civil jury in Manhattan federal court found Trump liable for sexually abusing Carroll, an advice columnist, in a Manhattan department store in 1996 and that he later defamed her. It awarded Carroll $5 million in damages. The jury rejected Carroll’s allegation that Trump raped her.
On Friday, the crowd attending the law school graduation loudly cheered after Alicia Quellette, the school’s outgoing dean and president, introduced Kaplan, known as “Robbie,” a friend since both were law clerks at the Court of Appeals in Albany, the top court in New York, in 1995. She acknowledged that some graduates may not agree politically with Kaplan, but asked all of them to heed Kaplan’s advice.
“It’s hard to think of a lawyer who is playing a more public and important role in matters of public interest than Robbie Kaplan,” Ouellette told the crowd, noting various awards and accolades bestowed on Kaplan, who also has extensive experience as a commercial litigator. “To say that she is a force of nature with a law degree is an understatement.”
Kaplan graduated from Columbia Law School in 1991 after obtaining her undergraduate degree from Harvard University. After a 25-year career at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, she formed her own firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink.
Kaplan successfully represented a lawsuit against the organizers of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which a woman was killed. It led to a $26 million jury verdict. And Kaplan is renowned for her successful argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which led to marriage equality. Kaplan’s client, Edie Windsor, had been denied a real estate tax exemption after her spouse, Thea Spyer died. Kaplan took on the case. She won in 2013. Kaplan later wrote the book, “Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA,” released in 2015.
In August 2021, Kaplan resigned as the chair of Time’s Up, an organization founded to fight sexual abuse, after her name appeared in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ report finding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, including current and former employees. The report said Kaplan reviewed a letter that Cuomo and his advisers planned to send to discredit Lindsay Boylan, a former economic development aide to the governor and the first woman to publicly accuse him.
On Friday, she told the graduates to “be brave” like their colleagues and professors.
“Truth be told, it was scary to take a marriage equality case to the Supreme Court and feel the fate of so many Americans resting on my shoulders,” Kaplan said. “It was scary to sue the Nazis in Charlottesville. It was scary to start a new law firm. And it was even scarier to take on the case of E. Jean Carroll — scary the most for E. Jean Carroll herself.”
Kaplan advised graduates to make lasting allies in their future legal careers.
“Too often we glamorize the lawyer as a kind of lone ranger standing heroically before the court, but that image is totally and completely false,” she said. “I couldn’t have won the Edie Windsor case without my colleagues. I couldn’t have won the E. Jean Carroll trial last week without an amazing team of lawyers by my side.”
Kaplan divulged that during the Trump trial, she shared her opening and rebuttal arguments with legal partners Shawn G. Crowley and Mike Ferrara because it took a team to win the case and she wanted the judge and jury to see that.
“In case it isn’t already obvious to you, let me remind you that the greatest gift law school has given you is the other students sitting around you this morning,” Kaplan told the graduates.
“You will accomplish far more if you find other lawyers who share your values and work with them to make things happen. If you come to realize that you’re working with people who don’t share your values or who can’t help you grow as a lawyer, then be honest with yourself. They aren’t the right colleagues. Find mentors who believe in you. Who you choose to surround yourself with speaks volumes about who you are and who you will become.”