Academics and Research

Practice-ready DU law grads are building Colorado’s legal community

The University of Denver Sturm College of Law is exceptionally well represented in Denver and the metro area: There’s hardly a law firm or corporate agency that doesn’t have a Denver Law graduate among its ranks.

And in many offices, DU is the No. 1 alma mater. On average, about 200 Denver Law grads take positions where JDs are either required or preferred, more than 85 percent of those in metro Denver alone. One school administrator could be forgiven a recent burst of enthusiasm, saying, “We own this town!” It’s much the same throughout the Front Range and the mountain west.

The law school’s visibility is all the more noteworthy given the growing popularity of Denver and Colorado as a place to live and work. The state’s burgeoning energy industry, its strong public and nonprofit sectors, the presence of law firms of all sizes and, of course, the terrific weather and nearby mountains make it an ideal place for lawyers and professionals to pursue their careers. Fully 50 percent of the law school’s applicants are from out of state, and recruiters and hiring partners field inquiries from around the country.

How does Denver Law maintain such a strong position in an industry fixated on rankings and in a region everyone suddenly wants to move to? By doing what it does best, says Dean Martin Katz. That includes offering a robust doctrinal and hands-on legal education and building strong relationships in Colorado’s legal community.

“We are known both for the quality of the legal education we provide and for our innovative approaches to teaching — particularly in the area of experiential education,” Katz says. “Employers routinely comment that they are ‘blown away’ by the quality of our graduates.”

The law school’s longtime commitment to experiential education, including clinics, externships and mentoring programs, means Denver Law graduates are better prepared than most to hit the ground running. And that’s exactly what today’s recruiters and hiring committees are looking for: First-year associates need to be able to handle real cases and clients with minimal training or oversight.

That was certainly the case for Sandra Whitcomb (JD ’11), who joined the Denver County office of the Colorado state public defender in January 2012. Whitcomb was busy — all public defenders are — but when a colleague left the office unexpectedly, she found herself doing the work of two attorneys, representing nearly 350 clients at a time and navigating a blizzard of weighty legal tasks, including plea negotiations and jury trials. It would have been impossible to run every decision past a supervisor or colleague, Whitcomb says, so she relied on what she learned at Denver Law.

“I had to feel confident that what I’d learned in law school was what I needed to know,” she says. “And it was.”

Whitcomb says courses such as Trial Practice and Legal Analysis Strategies were “right on point,” and that she benefited immensely from her prior experience as an extern in the same office. Whitcomb’s work did not go unnoticed: She was named County Court Attorney of the Year for the Denver office at the public defender’s annual conference later that year.

Although Whitcomb’s experience was extreme, all new public defenders are expected to assume responsibility for a full, existing caseload right from the start, says the system’s chief deputy, Brian Connors. That includes representing defendants whose cases are already set for court appearances.

“We don’t have the luxury of easing people into court,” Connors says. “Public defenders are courtroom lawyers from day one.”

Connors credits internship programs like DU’s Semester in Practice (in which law students work full time for an entire semester at a firm or agency) for making that possible.

“When a law student spends a summer or a semester with us, we get a pretty good idea if this work is for them — and so does the law student,” he says. Externs who earn the recommendation of the trial office are “low-risk bets,” according to Connors, when it comes to making new hires.

Connors says Denver Law’s commitment to externships, and to experiential education as a whole, is a big reason so many of its graduates land jobs there. “We wish all law schools had such opportunities for [third-year students],” he says.


The Experiential Advantage

The same sentiment is echoed in the private sector. Jack Trigg (JD ’63) and Michael O’Donnell (JD ’79), of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP (WTO), are longtime supporters of Denver Law and its hands-on approach to legal education. Experience and practice-readiness are of utmost importance at WTO. In fact, the firm never hires first year associates, recruiting instead among former judicial clerks and opting for lateral hires. Yet WTO partnered with Denver Law and the University of Colorado School of Law in launching a “legal residency” program for new graduates. O’Donnell calls the program, which is akin to a medical residency, a “win-win-win” for the school, firm and legal residents.

Trigg adds, “There’s no question DU students have a more realistic approach to the practice of law than students from schools with a more esoteric approach.”

Andrew Lillie (JD ’02) agrees. Lillie is a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP, one of the world’s largest law firms, and he is a recruiter for the firm’s litigation group in Denver. He seeks out the law school’s top graduates for the simple reason that they have proved to be “the best lawyers around.” (More than a dozen DU graduates are currently employed in the firm’s Denver office.) Like other recruiters, Lillie credits Denver Law’s experiential opportunities for giving DU graduates a real-world perspective, something students from other schools often lack.

“Being a lawyer means, fundamentally, being good with people,” Lillie says. “DU graduates tend to understand that more than people who come from purely academic experiences.”

Lillie adds that his firm (and perhaps more importantly, its clients) value lawyers with local knowledge and experience. He says solving complex legal problems involves much more than knowing the letter of the law. It requires being familiar with local issues and values and understanding the area’s government, business and community dynamics — that is, having a feel for a place.

“DU graduates know Denver, the Front Range and Colorado … [and they] really want to be here, to make Colorado their home,” Lillie says. “These things matter. They matter a lot.”



Lawyers with local connections can be a boon for the communities they work in, too. If Denver Law graduates are well represented in law firms in Colorado, they’re even more visible in the nonprofits and volunteer organizations serving the state’s neediest populations.

“Most people who [choose Denver Law] do so not only for what the school has to offer, but because they love being in Colorado,” says one school administrator. “It’s not surprising that so many find ways to give back.”

Aaron Boschee (JD ’06), a commercial litigator with Squire Patton Boggs LLP, is one such alumnus. The North Dakota native donates hundreds of hours of pro bono legal work per year through the Colorado Lawyers Committee, a Denver-based nonprofit that coordinates high-impact legal work on behalf of underprivileged people. (Another Denver Law tie-in: Alumna Connie Talmadge (JD ’78) serves as executive director of the Colorado Lawyers Committee.)

“There are people in this state who really need help,” Boschee says. “If people had to pay for legal representation to right those wrongs, it just wouldn’t happen.”

Boschee currently chairs the Colorado Lawyers Committee’s task force on the Taylor Ranch litigation, a land-rights dispute dating back to agreements made in the 1840s following the U.S.-Mexican War and the United States’ annexation of much of present-day Colorado. In addition to coordinating pro bono work of more than 30 attorneys, Boschee regularly makes the long drive to the Taylor Ranch area, a beautiful swath of mountains, forest and high pastures in the San Luis Valley, to meet the residents and small-time ranchers he and the Colorado Lawyers Committee represent. To date, the task force has helped adjudicate land-use rights on some 8,000 parcels of land, with more yet outstanding.

“The disputes are about land use, so you have to know what the land looks like,” he says. “Without [the land-use agreements], some of the people there couldn’t survive.”

Attorney Ryann Peyton also has put her experience at DU into service to the community. The Colorado native went to law school in Minnesota but returned to Denver to complete an LLM at Denver Law. She joined the Harris Law Firm PC in 2009 and quickly established herself as a leader in family law for gay, lesbian and other nontraditional couples and families. Peyton helped devise novel legal structures and protections for same-sex couples, including using commercial contracting laws to forge marriage-like rights for same-sex couples.

“I always felt that if the Legislature isn’t going to give us a statutory paradigm, we’ll have to create our own,” she says.

Peyton is the immediate past president of the Colorado Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Bar Association and serves on the boards of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness and the Colorado Lawyers Committee, among others.

Although her work has been focused locally, Peyton says it has the potential for “huge national implications.”

“Even if Colorado has marriage equality tomorrow, there’s still a majority of states that don’t,” she says.

It would be easy to explain Denver Law’s standing in the local legal community as a result of small-market dynamics; it’s one of just two law schools in the state, after all. But Denver Law is far more than “just a regional school,” at least in the narrow (and usually pejorative) sense the phrase is used.


Regional Success

Iain Davis, the Sturm College’s assistant dean of admissions and student financial management, readily admits there are 14 truly national schools “and then there’s everyone else.” But he says “regional” is hardly a dirty word when you’re talking about somewhere as popular as Colorado and the mountain west.

Moreover, Denver Law is a national leader through its involvement in a consortium of more than 30 innovative law schools from around the country, which collectively work toward significant change in legal education. The consortium is spearheaded by the independent Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), also based at DU, whose mission includes modernizing legal education and other reforms in the legal system.

“Nationally, there’s been an ‘aha’ moment that experiential learning is the way to train lawyers,” Davis says. “It’s a new concept to some [schools], but Denver Law’s been doing it for over a hundred years.”

It’s precisely Denver Law’s commitment to experiential education — in combination with its robust faculty scholarship and doctrinal coursework — that makes the school so good for its students and the legal community it serves.

Randy Robinson (JD ’13) was well on his way to a successful career in retail management, living with his wife and children in St. Louis. But the Denver native couldn’t shake the feeling that he wanted more out of his career. He says law was something he had “always wanted to do,” and after he was accepted into Denver Law in 2010, he and his family moved back to Colorado to begin a new chapter.

Robinson’s law school career was nothing if not busy: an internship for a federal judge; a law clerk position at Reilly Pozner LLP (which he held until graduation); active participation in the Black Law Students’ Association; and publishing a law review article on retaliatory arrests (not to mention welcoming a third child). He graduated with several academic awards and a certificate in constitutional rights and remedies.

Robinson, now 32, says it was just the sort of hands-on experience he wanted out of law school and one that virtually everyone at Denver Law — from the administration to the faculty and staff — supported and encouraged.

“Sometimes you wonder, ‘How can I fit in this externship and take that course and have that experience?’” Robinson says. “Then you talk to your faculty advisor or dean of students and they say, ‘OK, let’s see [how to make it work].’”

Robinson followed up law school with a yearlong clerkship with Colorado Supreme Court Justice Monica Marquez and now is an associate at Reilly Pozner LLP. Robinson says he is interested in civil rights litigation and, possibly, politics.

Reilly Pozner partner Dan Reilly (JD ’81) is thrilled to have Robinson on board. “My career began at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law,” Reilly says. “The law school continues to produce graduates who truly understand the intricacies of law practice, and Randy Robinson is no exception. We couldn’t be more excited to have Randy joining us. His intellect and spirit will make our firm better and stronger.”

Robinson is ready for the challenges ahead. “For now I want to focus on building a solid law practice,” Robinson says. “Then we’ll see.”


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