Bharara and Kaling on Success and Justice

The U.S. attorney and the comedic actress address Harvard Law School graduates on Class Day.

Mindy Kaling and Preet Bharara

As Preet Bharara ’90, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, sat in Harvard Square’s Hong Kong restaurant Tuesday night, going over his notes for his 2014 Harvard Law School (HLS) Class Day speech, which included quotations from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and extensive legal advice, he had a moment of clarity.

“You don’t really want or need me to read or quote from legal scripture,” he said to an audience of students, faculty, and staff gathered on Jarvis Field Wednesday afternoon. “Instead, what I thought I would do, rather than speak esoterically about the law, is that I would speak more pragmatically about how to be successful and happy in law practice.”

Bharara—who has spent much of his career focused on preventing large-scale financial fraud by creating the Complex Frauds Unit, an agency that has collected close to $500 million in settlements since its inception—recalled one of his favorite scenes from the movie The Departed. In it, Mark Wahlberg, playing a police sergeant, responds to a question about his identity by saying, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.” There is more wise career counsel in this short scene, Bharara said, than in any law volumes students might read.

“Be the guy who does his job,” Bharara said, “whether you are a law clerk, an assistant D.A., public defender, or anything else. Nothing else matters but doing your job, and doing it well—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 your God-given talent.”

Bharara also recalled the perfect game Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay threw four years ago, and said that graduates could learn from the simple intention he had as he walked out to the mound—just being good.  Four months later, Halladay threw a no hitter—not a perfect game, Bharara pointed out, but “pretty darn close.”

“There is a tendency for people like you, who are so successful and so accomplished and so credentialed, to think that every endeavor is like a perfect baseball game. But it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You should be successful, 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.”

 

Later in the program actress, comedian, writer, and producer Mindy Kaling—best known for portraying Kelly Kapoor on the NBC sitcom The Office and for creating, writing, and starring in her own sitcom on Fox, The Mindy Project—took to the stage, expressing her excitement and disbelief at being asked to speak.

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Mindy Kaling, why did they ask her? She’s just a pretty Hollywood starlet, what could that quadruple threat know about the Law?’” Kaling joked. “What intelligent remarks could she actually make? She’s probably too busy doing shampoo commercials.”

Kaling admitted that although she might be an unconventional choice, she and HLS dean Martha Minow have one big thing in common: they have both written books. The only exception, Kaling said, is that her own best-selling comedic memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) can be found in Urban Outfitters next to The Marijuana Chef’s Cookbook.  

Pointing out that this year’s graduating class has three Rhodes Scholars, 11 Fulbright Scholars, and four members of the Peace Corps, Kaling declared herself thrilled to be in such prestigious company. “This group before me is bristling with ambitious young people, many of whom have started charities and philanthropic organizations,” she said. “And now, with this diploma in hand, many of you will go on to the noblest of pursuits—like helping a cable company acquire a telecom company.”

Putting her jokes and witty comments aside, Kaling then discussed her background as an American whose parents were born in India. She said that her family’s romance with the American dream is more “romantic than any romantic comedy” she could ever write, and that their success was possible only because of “the inherent fairness” that exists only in this country. “My parents believed that here you can aspire and succeed to levels of success not possible anywhere else in the world—and that fairness that my family and I have taken for granted, that many Americans take for granted, is in many ways resting on your shoulders,” Kaling told her law-school audience. “You represent those who make laws and affect change, and that is truly an amazing thing.”

 

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