The Rutgers Law community gathered on October 25th for the 33rd Annual Mary Philbrook Public Interest Award Celebration, honoring Susan L. Burke and 13 Rutgers Law students and recent graduates for their outstanding commitment to public service.
The Philbrook Celebration is a tradition that began in 1986 at Rutgers Law School's Camden location. Sponsorship for this year's event was provided by Parker McCay, the Burlington County Bar Association, the Camden County Bar Association, and the Rutgers Law Alumni Association, with lead sponsorship from McCarter & English.
Reflecting on the purpose of the celebration, Co-Dean Michael T. Cahill said, "We want to instill in our students while they are here a sense of civic engagement and duty that will follow them throughout their careers. An evening like this gives us an opportunity to celebrate both the law school's mission of public service and the people whose hard work and dedication enable us to fulfill that mission."
Burke, the evening's Mary Philbrook Public Interest Award honoree, is an experienced litigator who specializes in bringing federal class-action or mass-tort lawsuits to reform broken systems or fix societal problems. Introductory remarks from Associate Dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest Jill Friedman and Professor Ellen P. Goodman noted Burke's reputation for fearlessly approaching her groundbreaking legal cases with "an iron fist in a velvet glove."
In her remarks, Burke offered advice to law students interested in pursuing work that serves the public interest: "Be prepared. Be courageous. And be optimistic."
Burke shared how she learned these lessons through her negotiation of multi-million dollar settlements with defense contractors involved in the Abu Ghraib torture and her work on a series of lawsuits, seeking to reform the military’s deficiencies in prosecuting rape and sexual assault, that were profiled in an Academy Award-nominated documentary, “The Invisible War.”
"The thing about solving social problems is you can't wait to be asked," said Burke. "You have to affirmatively go out and get yourself ready."
Reflecting on the importance of everyday courage, Burke urged young lawyers to view courage as a muscle that should be exercised and to embrace being counter-cultural.
"It didn't take a lot of courage on my part to sue Blackwater. It took a tremendous amount of courage on my part to tell a senior partner I couldn't stay late in the evening because I had an obligation to be home at an event for my child."
Burke closed her remarks by sharing her optimism after meeting with Rutgers Law students earlier in the day to answer their questions about her career, saying, "I draw a lot of my optimism from those of you in law school now. ...You guys are a shining light to those of us who have been at it."
The celebration also honored the contributions of 13 Rutgers Law students and recent graduates to the public interest community at the Law School. Second-year students Abigail Cook and Nakea Barksdale presented the awards to the student honorees and commended the honorees for their combined dedication of more than 1,400 hours of pro bono service throughout their time at Rutgers Law.
The evening also included remarks from Rutgers Law School–Camden Alumni Association Chancellor Janice Heinold, Burlington County Bar Foundation President Richard Strobel, Camden County Bar Association President-Elect Michael Dennin, and Mary Philbrook Public Interest Celebration Founder Professor Ann E. Freedman.
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