Inaugural Event Honors Stanford Law ‘Firsts’

Night of Firsts celebrates first-generation and low-income SLS students with a keynote address from SLS alumnus and pioneering public servant Xavier Becerra.

First Generation and Low-Income Professionals (FLI), one of Stanford Law School’s (SLS) newest student affinity groups, held its first-ever signature event, Night of Firsts, on February 24 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. The dinner event, with 200 attendees, offered SLS first-generation and low-income law students, alumni, and other guests the opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments and hear a keynote address from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, (J.D. ’84, B.A. ’80).

Secretary Becerra, son of immigrants and the first in his family to graduate with a four-year degree, is the 25th Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the first Latino to hold the office in the history of the United States. He previously served 12 terms in Congress as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and was the Attorney General of the state of California. 

FLI was founded six years ago and has approximately 100 members. The student affinity group “provides an inclusive community for students who come to law school without some of the support, connections, and family experiences that other students might enjoy,” said Julia Gokhberg, JD ’24, co-president of FLI. “FLI is such a positive, energized group where people who, for example, don’t have a lawyer mother or a father who’s a judge can ask questions and not feel out of place for not always knowing the answers.”

According to FLI, only two percent of students at the top 20 law schools in the country come from the bottom socioeconomic quartile of the population, while more than three quarters come from the richest socioeconomic quartile.

Wearing ‘Firsts’ as a Badge of Honor

Jenny Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School, welcomed the attendees with her thoughts about the inherent power of being a “first.” 

“I hope you have the courage to view all your ‘firsts’ as a badge of distinction, held close to your heart among your many other notable accomplishments, and I hope that you move forward in the world with your heads held high, constantly breaking down barriers, and earning recognition for all the firsts that make you who you are, while paving the way for those who come behind you,” she said. 

Secretary Becerra’s 20-minute address followed similar themes. “I consider myself FLI, although I’m about four decades too late to be a part of your great organization,” he said, inspiring enthusiastic laughter and applause. “I know you. I know you much better than you might think,” he continued. “Growing up, most people probably thought that I’d be more likely to work on a farm than to actually attend the Farm. And so, to see an organization at the best law school in the nation that is set up for people like me — it makes me feel very proud of my law school. Perhaps more importantly, to see so many of you affiliated with FLI, and feel that you belong as ‘firsts,’ is a testament to how you look at yourselves and how you look at what you’re going to do in the future.” 

Secretary Becerra continued by recounting some of his own experiences with ‘firsts,’ including how he felt the first time he went toe-to-toe with a U.S. President, which happened when he was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. President Clinton was leaning on him heavily to vote in favor of a trade bill. Becerra had reservations about what he perceived as the bill’s lack of attention to labor interests. He voted no, even in the face of a barrage of colorful and forceful language from President Clinton. “This was not how I imagined my first phone call from a U.S. President would be, but I learned a great deal from voting no. Even with the President of the United States, you can vote no. It is fascinating what happens when you do something like that for the first time. It is fun, actually. You think your life is going to end and the President is using every word in the book to get you to move in a particular direction, but you survive.”

The Challenges–And Opportunities—of Being a First

For FLI co-presidents Gokhberg and Jacob Randolph, JD ’24, planning the Night of Firsts brought with it a slew of first-time experiences, not the least of which was executing a large, formal event with numerous moving parts – all in about four months. All SLS affinity groups have the option of hosting one signature event annually. “As many first-generation students know, it is usually doubly hard to operate without precedent,” Gokhberg said. “Starting from scratch to secure law firm support for the event is one example. There was no playbook, no ability to say, ‘This is how much you gave last year.’ We just had to jump in and cold call and do it.”

They ultimately secured financial support from 26 law firms.

The effort that went into planning the Night of Firsts was not lost on Secretary Becerra. “Julia and Jacob, I have to say, if you can put on a party like this, you are ready to be lawyers,” he said to huge cheers.

Randolph commented on another successful first: “Secretary Becerra was our first choice when we explored keynote speaker options — and as expected, he did not disappoint,” Randolph said. “The Secretary’s keynote address made one thing incredibly clear. He embodies the same resilience and grit that makes the FLI community at SLS one worth investing in and growing.” 

During the Q&A session, Secretary Becerra repeatedly reminded the students that a Stanford Law School education “really allows you to fly, to achieve more than you even imagine right now,” he said. “You will forever be indebted to Stanford Law School for what it gives you … As a ‘first,’ someone banked on you. Make them proud.” 

About First Generation and Low-Income Professionals 

FLI Professionals is a six-year-old student-led affinity group that offers support for SLS students who identify as first-generation and/or low-income professionals. This includes students who grew up in working-class or low-income communities, students who are first in their family to attend college, and students who are first in their family to attend professional school.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.

Photography by Christine Baker.