Monday, July 01, 2019

Keynote Speech: Just the Beginning Foundation's Summer Legal Institute

On June 17, 2019, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker for the launch of this year’s Summer Legal Institute which was held at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The Summer Legal Institute is a one-week legal immersion program for high school students in San Diego, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Twin Cities, New Orleans, Springfield, and Washington, D.C. The goal is to encourage underrepresented students to pursue career and leadership opportunities in the law. Because I am also a writer, I was asked to speak about my duel identity as an attorney and author. The following is the text of my keynote presentation:


By Daniel A. Olivas

Thank you for that kind introduction. I am honored to be your keynote speaker for the launch of this year’s Summer Legal Institute.

Judge Dolly Gee asked me to share with you my insights including those I have gained from my personal background, educational journey, and legal and literary careers. I know it may shock some of you, but I was once your age. Really. It’s true. I had the most amazing head of hair. But time marches on. And though we may lose some of our youthful physical attributes, we can gain much in life’s experiences.


One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that even though we may have some common experiences, each one of our lives is special, different, and unlike anyone else’s.

But we can sometimes find the stories of others helpful or inspiring, and this truth connects perfectly with my decision to become a lawyer and a writer.

First, let me tell you a little about my upbringing.

My grandparents came to Los Angeles from Mexico about a hundred years ago. They were part of the large migration of people fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution.

My father grew up in Boyle Heights, and my mother grew up near USC. They met in high school and, after my father came back from serving in the Marines during the Korean Conflict, they married and bought a house not too far from here on Dewey Avenue—the house no longer exists—near Loyola High School where someday I would be a student.

My parents had five children over the course of about ten years. I am the middle child. My father worked in a factory, and my mother was a very hardworking homemaker.

And though there was always food on the table and lots of love, times were not always easy.

In the mid-1960s, my parents wanted to improve our lives, so they enrolled at Los Angeles City College. I don’t know how they did it, but with five children, they majored in psychology. After college, they became pre-school teachers in the Head Start Program which was conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society campaign.

My parents always encouraged us to read and to be creative. And they made it very clear that college was going to be in our futures. My parents were—and still are—my greatest role models. I attended St. Thomas the Apostle Grammar School, and then went to Loyola High School. While in high school, my college counselor told me that I should think about applying to Stanford University.

I asked him: Where is Stanford?

He patiently pulled out a map of California and pointed to a place near San Francisco. “Here,” he said. He told me that I had the grades and test scores, and that I should apply.

In other words, he believed in me.

So I applied to Stanford and got in. And my parents did everything to in their power to make certain I succeeded.

College was hard. I had never been away from home for so long. But again, my parents encouraged me with phone calls and cards—before the days of email.

It was hard for my parents, too. Aside from missing me, they were raising four other children and making major changes in their working lives. My father no longer taught but now worked in the personnel department for the Rapid Transit District—now known as the Metro.

My mother opened her own pre-school at the Normandie Recreation Center. But even with their lives improving through education, money was tight. At one point, three of their five children were in college at the same time: my older sister at UCLA, I was at Stanford, and my younger brother had started at Harvard.

But how did I decide to go to law school? Certainly no one in my family was a lawyer, and the only lawyers I knew were the ones I saw on TV and in the movies.

Well, my path was—shall we say—quite improvised.

I majored in English literature at Stanford. Why? Because I loved reading and writing. My parents were delighted with my choice of major. I thought that I’d become an English professor, because that way I could use my communication skills to try to help mentor young people, especially those who came from communities like mine.

But to do that, I’d have to get a masters and then a Ph.D. That could take an additional six or more years after graduating from college. On top of that, academic jobs were tough to find, and I would have to be willing to move to another state if a job opportunity came my way.

But after college, I wanted to start my career in Los Angeles, my home, where my family lived. What should I do? In my senior year, as I wrestled with my future, a friend of mine said that if I
wanted to use my writing and communication skills to help people, I should be a lawyer.


That is why I applied to law school.

Simple as that: a friend offered a great idea that was staring at me in the face all the time, but it didn’t register until someone actually said it.

I eventually went to UCLA School of Law, and I knew I made the right decision. I quickly joined the La Raza Law Student Association, and eventually I became co-chairperson of it. And in my last year, I was appointed editor-in-chief of the Chicano Law Review.

I also met my wife there, as well as wonderful people such as Judge Dolly Gee. It probably was the most consequential professional—and personal—decision of my life.

And it was all because a friend suggested it.


But we are not just one thing. As the great American poet Walt Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Aside from dealing with the “real” world in my legal career, I am also a fiction writer, poet, and book critic.

My parents always made certain we had books to read—we used our library cards very liberally.

I loved the smell of books, and I dreamed that some day, people could check out my books from the library.

In fact, when I was in first grade and started to write very basic sentences, I quickly created little story books that I illustrated. They were simple stories, often involving ghosts and strange animals.

And I kept on writing.

Throughout grammar and high school, and through college and law school, I wrote for school-sponsored publications.

And as a lawyer, I wrote many articles on legal issues for the Daily Journal. There was something so exhilarating about seeing my words in print. I think I started to understand in a very personal way the power of the written word.

But it wasn’t until I was 39 years old, when I was an already an established attorney, did I start to write fiction. I was struggling with grief arising from family health issues, and I found that writing fiction was therapeutic. But once I started to be published, I couldn’t stop writing. My short stories—and eventually poetry—started to be published by literary journals and anthologies.

I now have published nine books, and edited two anthologies. I’ve written for many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times through a decidedly Latino lens.

One of my greatest joys has been when I visit colleges as a guest author and I get to meet students from all backgrounds who want to tell their own stories. And I always tell them: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and they will get it wrong.


Creative writing has been a truly fulfilling aspect of my life. But I also love being an attorney.

Throughout my unexpected journey to becoming both a lawyer and creative writer, there have been people who encouraged, supported, and loved me, and my parents have been the primary source of such things.

But there also have been my wife, our son, friends, teachers, professors, and sometimes strangers who have helped shape my journey.

At times, people don’t know how much they affect others—for better or worse. One unkind comment that diminishes someone’s worth could disrupt a person’s goals.

But don’t ever let it.

On the positive side, words of encouragement can ignite a person’s passion to succeed. And programs such as the Summer Legal Institute can introduce you to people who can offer you exactly that.

Take advantage of it. Be greedy about it!

But know that you are also a role model. You can be that person who encourages someone else to reach high.

In closing, remember and believe this:

Your ideas matter.

Your words matter.

Your actions matter.

You matter.

You are large, you contain multitudes.

Thank you.

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