Public Statements & Remarks

What It Means to Be A Leader: Remarks by Commissioner Caroline D. Pham at Fordham University School of Law

March 03, 2023

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak with you all at Fordham Law, with faculty and students who are working on cutting-edge issues of law and technology today.  As I look around the room at a law school with more than 100 years of history, I see the future generation of leaders.  And so I’d like to begin this fireside chat by sharing a few thoughts on leadership.

Leadership and Ethics

At all times, and most especially in the tough times, you need to know your first principles and your true values.  You need to know your ethical home base that you can always come back to.  It helps to have a clear sense of self and what you care about and stand for.  Most of all, you must have integrity.

You all are entering a deeply duty-bound profession.  You will take oaths.  You will owe duties to clients.  You will be officers of the court.  These are profound responsibilities that you’ll need to uphold in sometimes challenging circumstances.  You’ll be faced with gray areas and tough questions.

When I was beginning my career, I had many mentors with important jobs working under significant pressure each day.  I would ask how they handle it, especially when dealing with issues of first impression or new areas of law or when there is regulatory uncertainty.  The answers are pretty simple.

Make sure everyone knows and follows the law.  Make sure people are treated fairly and with respect.  Make sure you give constructive feedback if someone works hard on an assignment.  When there are issues, escalate appropriately and report it.  Develop and use good judgment in all that you do.  It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how challenging it can be to not only do the right thing, but encourage others to do so as well.  And—if it ever gets to that point—be prepared to walk away and quit if you are being put in a position where you feel that your ethics are being compromised, or ethical violations are being committed that you cannot stop.  There is always a choice you can make.

That advice has stuck with me and it’s the approach I’ve taken in my career.  Each day, no matter how challenging—and there were so many long hours and tight deadlines—I worked to lead in this way.  This approach was a personal source of strength to help me keep going when things were hard.  And it was important for me to remember that each leader casts a “leadership shadow”—the many other colleagues that look up to you and follow your example, and the culture that you create.  Don’t forget that as lawyers, your leadership shadow covers not only your peers and colleagues, but your clients and the legal profession writ large.

Leadership in Organizations

During your careers, you will work somewhere, likely in some form of organization—law firms, companies, government, academia, public interest centers.  Learn where you are and why you are there.

Think of this place.  During your time here, learn Fordham Law’s century-plus history—intertwined with the growth and development of this city, our country, and the world.  You all are in a place rich with history and excellence.  Carry this with you as you do your work.

For me, I am at the CFTC for the fourth time—during my career, I have been an intern, a fellow, a special counsel, and now a Commissioner.  So I have a particularly strong sense of place with my agency.  Each day I wake up proud to serve the public and to fulfill our agency’s mission.  I think it’s so important to be in touch with your roots and to understand all that came before you, no matter where you are.  Sometimes, when you wonder why things are the way they are, you’ll find the answers in that institution’s history.  We call this institutional knowledge, and it can be invaluable in helping you make good decisions.  I want to make sure that we are preserving our institutional knowledge at the CFTC, and that’s why I would like to take this opportunity to call for the establishment of the CFTC Historical Society.  This will help us recognize, preserve, and celebrate our agency’s extraordinary history.  I also look forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Commission in October 2024 and will support our agency’s remembering our history as we continue to move forward.

Carry your organization’s culture and values with you each day.  This will grow your roots in your work and bonds with your colleagues who share your place and history with you.

Leadership in the Legal Profession

More broadly, as you join the legal profession, whether in the courtroom, the classroom, or one day the boardroom—engage with the profession.  Go to conferences.  Join groups.  Work on committees.  Keep a growth mindset.  Stay curious.  Never stop asking questions.

I am so fortunate to have learned so much from mentors and colleagues I met and worked with through my alma mater, GW Law, and through bar associations, industry organizations, and affinity groups.  I can’t imagine being here today without those teachers, mentors, colleagues, and friends.

Become part of the legal profession.  Celebrate its history and make its future.  And as you advance, help those behind you do so as well.

Thank you again so much for having me. I am really looking forward to the discussion.