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Sturm College of Law Celebrates 2023 Law Stars

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Sturm College of Law

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Law Stars group photo

(l-r) Sturm College of Law Alumni Council Chair Nicole Black, JD'11, joins DU Provost Mary Clark and 2023 DU Law Stars Dolores Atencio, JD'80, Olivia Mendoza, JD'19, George "Skip" Gray III, JD'85, Professor Catherine Smith, Allison Herren Lee, JD'97, and Dean Bruce Smith at the Denver Art Museum's Sturm Grand Pavilion.

On November 10, nearly 300 guests gathered between the floor-to-ceiling fluted glass windows of the Denver Art Museum’s Sturm Grand Pavilion to celebrate and honor the Sturm College of Law’s 2023 DU Law Stars. The auspicious view of downtown Denver was an appropriate backdrop for video tributes to the accomplishments of this year’s five honorees, who included four alumni and one Denver Law faculty member. Through the efforts and generosity of the Sturm College of Law Alumni Council and many individuals, this second in-person Law Stars celebration since the pandemic pause was a glittering success.

Fierce Pride

For the first time since 2017, all five Law Stars award categories were included in this year’s honors, but Sturm College of Law Dean Bruce Smith and University of Denver Provost (and Denver Law Professor) Mary Clark had even more to be proud about this fall. In their opening comments, Dean Smith and Provost Clark both highlighted the accomplishment of the July 2023 Colorado Bar Exam takers from the University of Denver, who achieved a remarkable 86% first-time bar passage rate – significantly higher than both the University of Colorado (81%) and other ABA-accredited law schools (77%). Dean Smith concluded that “although we approach our work with humility, I celebrate with you tonight with fierce, unstinting, and unapologetic pride.”

Alexi Freeman and Olivia Mendoza
Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Alexi Freeman (l) and 2023 DU Law Star Olivia Mendoza, JD'19

The evening’s first honoree was Olivia Mendoza, JD’19, who received the Bruce B. Johnson Outstanding Young Alumni Award. In a video honoring her, former United States Attorney General Eric Holder praised Mendoza’s work as director of litigation and policy for the National Redistricting Foundation: “Olivia is a really critical leader and a voice on our team at a time when the fight for a truly representative democracy and for racial equality in voting are more important than ever.” In the video, Mendoza traces her roots from Chihuahua, Mexico, and undocumented childhood in the United States, where she gained her citizenship after graduating college, to standing on the steps of the Supreme Court in 2022 for Allen v. Milligan, a landmark voting rights case. 

Considering what inspires her current work, Mendoza remarks that “I was always starkly aware that I really was living on the margins of society because I couldn’t vote. It was the moment that I became a citizen that I felt like there were some people out there that advocated for me that don’t even know me, but they deeply cared about addressing this policy reform.” In addition to becoming one of this year’s Law Stars, Mendoza has been recognized for her leadership and selected as a German Marshall Memorial Fellow; Livingston Fellow, and a National Hispana Leadership Institute Fellow.

Catherine Smith and family
2023 DU Law Star Professor Catherine Smith (3rd from r) and family

In addition to the four alumni honorees, this year’s ceremony honored the work of Denver Law's Professor Catherine Smith with the Robert B. Yegge Excellence in Teaching Award. As Dean Smith noted in the video tribute to her work, Catherine Smith was the “first tenure-stream, full-time faculty member to serve as an associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in that role served not only in an influential leadership role within our institution, but as a model for other law schools to follow that lead.” 

At the heart of much of Professor Smith’s work has been advocacy on behalf of children’s rights. Julia Olson, the founder and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, remarked that “Catherine is one of these shining light leading experts on children’s rights who thinks about children and the way the law should treat children in a way that hasn’t really been explored in law before.” In fact, Professor Smith’s co-authored amicus brief on children’s rights was cited and relied upon in the same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. 

In 2023, an anonymous donor, recognizing Professor Smith’s work in the realm of children’s rights, provided a $2.2 million gift to support the Consortium for the Advancement of Children’s Constitutional Rights, which Smith cofounded with professors from Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law and Georgia State University. As Dean Smith concluded, “the gift that she inspired to this law school in the area of children’s rights is massive, it’s transformative, it’s exceedingly rare, and it is richly deserved.”

Jan and Skip Gray
2023 DU Law Star George "Skip" Gray III, JD'85 (r) and wife Jan Gray

“When you think of Skip Gray, you think of public service,” remarked John Baker, JD’73, in the video honoring George "Skip" Gray III, JD'85, as the recipient of this year’s Robert H. McWilliams, Jr. Alumni Professionalism Award. One might also think of Gray’s signature cowboy hat and bolo tie, or of his DU pride tempered by humility—an ongoing theme of this year’s celebration. As Gray put it, “I think what I’m most proud of in my legal career is that I always managed to keep separate the ‘what’ that I did from the ‘who’ that I was. I have always been able to bring my authentic self into my work and into every situation that I was present for.”

For over 30 years, Gray practiced law in the Denver area, spending much of that time as an attorney for the City of Denver’s Department of Law, as well as Holland & Hart, LLP, and Gray Jones Hahn and Browne. He is also renowned for his volunteer work, having served on boards “too numerous to mention” as Baker put it, including the ACLU. Gray is a former member of the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors and past president and lifetime member of the Sam Cary Bar Association. Leslie Fields, JD’81, remarked on Gray’s efforts to advance diversity and inclusion within the legal profession: Gray is a former chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing diversity and creating cultures of justice, equity and inclusion within private and public sector legal organizations in Colorado.

Dolores Atencio and grandson
2023 DU Law Star Dolores Atencio, JD'80

For Dolores Atencio, JD’80, who was honored with the William L. Keating Outstanding Alumni Award, there is “nothing more meaningful than being recognized and honored by your peers. It truly has touched my heart.” Atencio had no shortage of peers to recognize her accomplishments in the video honoring her or in person at the event. But as Fay Matsukage, JD’79 noted, when Atencio started out, “she realized she had no role models” in the form of female Latina attorneys as a child growing up in Pueblo, Colorado. That realization helped spark Atencio’s decades-long work researching the first Latina attorneys in the United States, which has culminated in Luminarias de la Ley (Luminaries of the Law), a project Atencio founded in 2015.

Emerging from what Atencio called a “little volunteer activity” that started in 1993, Luminarias has established Atencio as the national expert on the history of Latina lawyers in the United States for her original, comprehensive analysis of empirical data on female Latina attorneys in the U.S. between the years 1880 and 1980. In 2015, Atencio became the first visiting scholar for the University of Denver’s Latinx Center, and her academic work followed 32 years of practicing law, making Atencio herself a “baby Luminaria” (along with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who earned her JD from Yale in 1979). In 2021, the National Hispanic Bar Association awarded its President’s Award to Atencio, and she received the Latina Commission’s Primera Abogada award in 2018. One of Atencio’s proudest distinctions is having received the Ohtli Award in 2014, the highest honor the Mexican government grants to non-Mexican citizens for work on behalf of Mexican citizens in the United States.

Allison Herren Lee
2023 DU Law Star Allison Herren Lee, JD'97

The final video tribute of the evening recognized former Acting Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Allison Herren Lee, JD’97, this year’s recipient of the Thompson G. Marsh Award. Previously appointed as an SEC commissioner in 2019, President Biden appointed her as acting chair in January 2021. Since stepping down from the SEC in 2022, Lee has served as a senior research fellow and adjunct professor at NYU Law, and as a director at the International Foundation for Valuing Impacts, which has a mission to build a global impact economy translating environmental and social impact into the language of currency.

In summarizing her interaction with two SEC enforcement lawyers who were about to let a defendant off too easily, former SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr. thought “thank God she’s on my side.” Lee’s recent role as a professor aligns with the impact she made while in leadership at the SEC. Jackson remarked that “I watched Allison as a commissioner, as acting chair, as a boss to her staff and then to thousands of employees at the SEC – I watched her teaching; sharing wisdom. Allison has mentored hundreds of lawyers who have learned from her the art of practicing the law in a way that is consistent with one’s values, morals and commitments.” 

A recipient of the Chancellor’s Scholarship, Lee attended Denver Law as an older student, having already started a family, and her success has been an inspiration to the generations that follow her. For her daughter Beth Santi, “she taught us to always be able to get through anything and push through anything and not give up and that’s probably why she is who she is and where she is.”

With Gratitude

In his remarks, Dean Smith included gracious thanks to this year’s platinum and gold sponsors, including the law firms Fennemore, Keating Wagner Polidori Free, Polsinelli, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, and Chalat Hatten Banker. This year’s sponsorships set a record and helped ensure that proceeds from the evening would do the greatest good to support the Denver Law Fund in furtherance of the law school’s most important priorities. The generosity of Brent, JD’93, and Christina, JD’94, Gregoire also helped further that effort, through their donation of an exclusive collection of American and Australian red wines for the evening’s wine pull. That translated to a $100 donation per bottle for the Denver Law Fund, (and up to a $750 per bottle value for lucky guests) – a gift that will ensure many more cheers this holiday season to Denver’s Law Stars.

2023 Law Stars Photo Gallery