Denver Law Graduates Ready to Tackle New Challenges
The students and families who arrived at the Ritchie Center on Saturday, May 21, represented a return to some degree of normalcy. It has been three years since the last spring Commencement ceremony in the Ritchie Center without mask requirements, social distancing and limitations on crowd size.
Three months after that August 2019 ceremony, this year’s class of graduates from the Sturm College of Law arrived on the University of Denver campus for their orientation. Less than seven months later, they would all be sent home because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The perseverance exhibited by the graduates over the past three years, along with the challenges they now face entering the law profession, was a theme throughout the Commencement ceremony.
Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Clark, a graduate of the Harvard Law School and a tenured faculty member at Denver Law, focused on the importance of bravery. She talked about the courage the graduates already exhibited with their work in the Civil Rights Clinic and the Student Bar Association, and by navigating the uncertainties of the pandemic. She said such dauntlessness must continue as they enter the legal profession.
“I encourage you to continue to be bold and intrepid – to be courageous in the clients you choose to represent, in the legal arguments you elect to advance, in the change you seek to make in the world, and – yes – in confronting the challenges that we all inevitably face. Our nation and our world will be better for it,” Clark said.
Chancellor Jeremy Haefner drew from his background as an accomplished mathematician to address the graduates. He shared the story of a mathematical puzzle that went unsolved for centuries. It was not until 1995 when a British mathematician, Richard Wiles, used his creativity and determination to find the solution.
“As you go out into the world and tackle the hardest challenges of our time – racial justice, social justice, access to justice, climate change and the international rule of law – your brilliance and training will no doubt serve you well,” Haefner said. “But I also encourage you, like Wiles, to recognize that the world’s hardest problems require creativity and determination – qualities that reside within every one of you.”
Bruce Smith, dean at the Sturm College of Law, turned to baseball for his message. In order to lead the Commencement ceremony, he had to miss his high school son playing in the Colorado baseball state championship.
Smith used three baseball analogies to draw parallels with what the Class of 2022 likely will face as they begin their work. First, he told them to trust their tools. “Hone them and direct them to worthy and dignified ends. They are stronger than you realize, and they will serve you well,” he said.
Second, he told the students to anticipate and embrace failure. Cal Ripken Jr., “The Iron Man” of baseball, observed that even the best ballplayers fail seven out of 10 times, Smith said.
Finally, he instructed the graduates to embrace “Moneyball,” referencing the Michael Lewis best-selling book about how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane used a progressive approach to build a winning team. Smith told the students that the profession of law gains by taking unconventional and even contrarian paths.
“I don’t want to portray your life in the law as some type of Field of Dreams,” Smith said. “There will be days when your professional obligations rub up against the interests of those you love, and I will say that this was probably one of those days for me. But if you apply your tools to things that drive you, that speak to your passions, that make you feel proud of what you do each day, even these moments will be significant and clarifying.
“As important, they will be respected and understood by those who care about you, by those who wish for your support, and I wish you that perspective and that balance between your mission-driven work and your future life in the law that we all deserve and that you will all surely enjoy.”
Most of this year’s class of 321 law graduates attended the in-person ceremony. The class chose Nigel Daniels as the student speaker. The Denver native completed his undergraduate degree from Colorado State University. Before attending Denver Law, he worked for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
He reminded his fellow graduates of the questions they were asked during their first-year orientation in 2019: “Why are you here? Why do you want to become a lawyer?” He then shared this metaphor for success: “The wolf on the hill is never as hungry as the wolf climbing the hill.”
“Regardless of what your destiny is, stay hungry and remember what your ‘why’ is. I challenge each of you to never stop climbing that hill,” Daniels said. “This is our moment. Let’s seize it. Let’s seize the opportunity to be staunch defenders of justice, to be advocates for change. To never lose sight of the ‘why’ that got each of us here in the first place. We’ve worked hard, and each of you deserves this amazing accomplishment.”