FAYETTEVILLE -- Attorney Tom Mars urged University of Arkansas, Fayetteville law school graduates to remain open to unconventional career paths and remember that one lawyer truly can make a difference.
"When you see an opportunity to be the lawyer who can make a difference, seize that opportunity," said Mars, former executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Walmart and current owner of Mars Law Firm, during his commencement address Saturday.
Rather than following the traditional path, consider making "your own path" and leaving a trail for others to follow, he said.
Mars was selected by the graduating law school class as its commencement speaker for his commitment to justice and leadership, according to the university. He received his Juris Doctor from UA-Fayetteville's law school in 1985, graduating top of his class and serving as editor-in-chief for the Arkansas Law Review.
Early in his career, Mars sued a nightclub on behalf of three Black men who were beaten up by bouncers wearing Ku Klux Klan attire -- the owner of the club that night was dressed like Adolf Hitler -- and while he was "proud" of the eventual victory and jury award, helping his clients get justice was "even more satisfying to me," he said. He's "wired" to fight on behalf of social justice, and "it feels good to help people."
Attending a diversity conference while he was Walmart's general counsel proved to be a true inspiration, and he subsequently devoted himself to fighting for diversity in the legal profession, he said. While significantly upgrading the level of talent in Walmart's legal department, he and his team also made it the most-diverse legal department in the Fortune 500.
They also used Walmart's substantial outside counsel budget to "leverage" firms into becoming more diverse by moving business from firms uninterested in diversity to firms that had made meaningful steps toward diversity, he said. That "led to real change nationwide."
Firms have increasingly realized "diversity is not only the right thing to do, but it's good for business," he said. Though the playing field "in our profession is still not level," one lawyer "can make the world a better place."
An accomplished trial lawyer, he's also a nationally recognized advocate in collegiate sports and an experienced crisis consultant for companies, executives and public officials who was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee in 1998 to serve as director of the Arkansas State Police, serving three years before returning to private practice, according to the university. He's received several awards for professional excellence, including the American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association Diversity Award, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association President's Award, and the National Association of Women Lawyers President's Award.
Mars is the only person on the planet to work directly for Huckabee (he was his personal lawyer) and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- at Rose Law Firm -- he said to laughter, and he's a former police officer who only went to law school in order to work for the FBI. Though he eventually was accepted into the FBI -- his colorblindness delayed his application -- he'd already began clerking for U.S. Circuit Judge Monroe G. McKay, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Salt Lake City, so he remained on the legal path.
In recent years, he's been on the vanguard of momentous changes in college sports, representing myriad high-profile student-athletes in matters involving the NCAA's transfer rules, and he's also represented several head coaches and athletic directors in legal and contract matters, he said.
He uses Twitter to call out public officials when he believes they're behaving improperly, and he's sued the state of Arkansas pro bono over "antidemocratic" legislation because he has "a hard time walking past injustice," even though those battles aren't "lucrative."
His career demonstrates the rights and responsibilities of being an attorney, and graduates should take note, said Cynthia Nance, dean of the law school. Graduates "join us in a noble profession" where they'll speak on behalf of others, protect and defend their rights, and preserve the rule of law "for all of us."
This class is already on the right track, as they devoted nearly 1,800 hours of pro bono service to the community, advocated for more student services -- from a food pantry to a lactation room -- and orchestrated the law school's first "Friendsgiving," she said. Graduates are "on a path to creating a more just society and making a difference in the lives of others."
They've demonstrated commendable resilience and grit, too, persevering through the COVID-19 pandemic, Nance added. "We're very proud of them."
Starting law school five months after the onset of the global pandemic meant this group had to overcome a lot of adversity, but "we all kept going," said Josie Bates, a member of the graduating class who was selected for recognition on the American Association for Law Schools Inaugural Pro Bono Honor Roll, served as the Rose Law Firm Pro Bono Fellow, and worked for Walmart's Digital Citizenship Leadership Team, several law firms, and as a research and teaching assistant to a pair of law professors. "We've adapted, grown, and learned together."
Though it was "a struggle, I wouldn't have wanted to do this with anyone else," said Bates, who graduated from UA-Fayetteville in 2020 with undergraduate degrees in English and Psychology. "It truly is the people around us" -- from classmates and professors to friends and family -- who "make law school possible."
"No matter where our careers take us, I hope we never forget those who helped us," said Bates, who served as president of OutLaw, president of the Women's Law Student Association, managing editor of the Arkansas Law Review, and chair of the Anti-Bias Anti-Racist Task Force. Graduates should also remember to give back to those who will be in law school in the future, the same way so many alumni did for them.
The law school has roughly 6,500 living alumni, representing all 50 states and more than two dozen counties, Nance said. Bates was selected by her classmates to speak Saturday, and she has accepted a position with Kutak Rock, LLP, as an associate attorney.
The rest of UA-Fayetteville's graduates celebrated commencement last weekend.
Though the exact number of graduates won't be official until final grades are in and confirmed by the registrar's office, the total number of students "walking" during commencement this semester is 4,374, with 1,009 in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, 595 graduate students (99 doctoral), 384 in the College of Engineering, 300 in the Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food & Life Sciences, 1,243 in the College of Business, 117 in the Fay Jones School, 587 in the College of Education and Health Professions, and 117 in the law school, according to John Thomas, UA-Fayetteville director of media relations and core communication.