Dear Members of the Denver Law Community:
I first visited Colorado at the age of eight with my father, who had studied medicine in Denver in 1960-61. During his one magical year in Colorado, my dad was an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club, ascending a number of iconic 14ers in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges, including Mt. Sneffels and Crestone Needle. Like me, he developed a life-long love of the Centennial State and of the incredible vistas it affords to those who are intrepid and determined.
When I myself moved to Denver with my family in July 2016, I brought with me a book from my father’s mountaineering collection: Marshall Sprague’s The Great Gates: The Story of the Rocky Mountain Passes (1964). Published in the year of my birth, the book tells the story of the courageous missionaries, adventurers, gold miners, engineers and entrepreneurs who first traversed the high passes of the Rockies to discover breathtaking views and boundless opportunities.
Throughout its 125-year history, the law school of the University of Denver has been its own “great gate” — making opportunities available that, absent a Denver Law degree, would have been inaccessible and even incomprehensible. In this installment of the Denver Law Dean’s Digest, I reflect upon opportunities — those that our law school has provided, and those that we seek to provide today and in the future.
In many respects, the history of legal education is a history of successive waves of opportunity. In 1869, John Mercer Langston, an abolitionist and member of Congress, founded the Howard University Law School to train African American lawyers for leadership opportunities during the difficult early years of Reconstruction. Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillette founded the Washington College of Law in 1896 — a law school by and for women — after having been denied admission to the five all-white law schools of the District of Columbia. A decade later, Gleason Archer founded the Suffolk Law School in Boston to educate first-generation Americans unable to secure admission to Boston’s more established and exclusive law schools, such as Harvard.
Throughout its history, Denver Law has played its own important role in expanding educational opportunity. Our nationally-ranked part-time program has permitted those with job and family responsibilities to pursue legal education. Our Chancellor’s Scholarship Program provides full-tuition scholarships to students dedicated to the public interest. And the Yegge Hispanic Scholarship Program (whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year) has transformed the Rocky Mountain bar: in 1967, Colorado had fewer than 15 Hispanic lawyers — this, in a state whose Spanish-speaking heritage dates back nearly 500 years; now, as I had the privilege of remarking at our recent Latino/a Alumni Reunion, Denver Law has more than 800 Latino and Latina alumni. But if legal education has become more inclusive, it has also become more expensive — rising to more than $70,000 a year at Denver Law. Now, and in the years to come, we need to provide enhanced scholarship support so that the rising cost of attending Denver Law does not foreclose opportunity for future generations of talented lawyers and leaders.
Our law school rightly prides itself on the range of experiential opportunities that it provides — in clinics, externships, inter-school competitions and in-class simulations. This tradition of real-world training dates back to 1904, when Denver Law opened its student-operated “Legal Aid Dispensary” to administer to the legal needs of the city’s indigent population. Supported by a 25% increase in unrestricted cash donations from our alumni in 2016-17, we made available $50,000 of dedicated funding in summer 2017 to support summer stipends for Denver Law students working in the public interest. In the coming years, we need to continue to expand such opportunities for our students to gain real-world experience: by expanding support for our Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), which makes it more feasible for students to pursue opportunities in public service; and by raising alumni funds for postgraduate public service fellowships, designed to jumpstart opportunities in public interest organizations and governmental service.
At Denver Law, we have the privilege of training some of the nation’s most talented and dedicated law students. We take that responsibility seriously and, to that end, have made significant recent investments designed to enhance the return-on-investment on our students’ legal education. We have hired three new assistant directors in our Office of Career Development and Opportunities, charged with strengthening relationships with law firms, accounting firms, corporations, governmental employers and non-profits. During the 2017-18 academic year, we anticipate additional initiatives designed to expand opportunities in rapidly-expanding job sectors in which legal training provides an advantage, including compliance, human resources and consulting. And we have added courses to our curriculum designed to prepare students for careers in industry sectors burgeoning in Colorado, including the financial services and beverage industries.
During my first year as dean, I focused my energies on engaging our alumni and expanding their support. Face-to-face visits with alumni increased by over 90%. And unrestricted giving to the Denver Law Fund — the educational “venture fund” that fuels the law school’s most vital strategic initiatives — expanded by over 30%.
Of course, this is only the beginning. In this 125th anniversary year, and in the years to come, we seek to dramatically expand educational, experiential and professional opportunities for our students. To do so, we need your engagement, your counsel, your advocacy and your financial support. To that end, I respectfully pose a pair of questions to you: What opportunities did your legal education at the University of Denver make available to you? And what role will you play in helping ensure that our law school remains a “great gate” of opportunity for the next generation of lawyers, entrepreneurs, public servants and civic leaders?
Bruce P. Smith
University of Denver Sturm College of Law