Nancy E. Rice didn’t set out to become chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court.
As a law student at the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1972, one of the Wyoming native’s earliest quests for social justice came in trying to persuade administrators to establish more women’s restrooms in an era when female law students weren’t yet the norm.
It took two years for Rice and her classmates to win that battle, but it would be the first of many successes in her legal career. After graduation in 1975, Rice embarked on a path that led her to time spent as a deputy state public defender, deputy chief of the civil division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, professor, published scholar and as a district court judge. In 1998, she was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court and later took the helm as chief justice.
There are days — she told 122 graduates of the S.J. Quinney College of Law gathered at commencement at Kingsbury Hall recently — that she’s not entirely sure how she ended up where she’s at. That same scenario may be likely for other newly graduated attorneys who are about to set out on differing journeys, she said.
“Here I am the chief justice, graduates, and I can’t tell you how that happened. Every single day, I did something I enjoyed. When I didn’t enjoy it, I did something different. I look back and think, maybe I was just very, very lucky,” Rice said. “But, no, I think I was somewhat self-aware that I had the ability to go out and make things happen for myself. Don’t have a grand master plan. How you spend your days is going to be how you spend your life. Make sure every day counts. It’ll be just fine.”
Rice’s keynote address at commencement capped of a day of celebration for the class of 2016, a group that holds the distinction as the first graduating class to attend classes in the law school’s state-of-the-art building, which formally opened in September.
Dean Bob Adler noted the class of 2016 were a part of many milestones at the law school over the past year, including the 30th anniversary of the college’s Minority Law Caucus; the 20th anniversary of the renowned Wallace Stegner Center; the inaugural year for the Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences; the 50th anniversary of the college’s William H. Leary Lecture featuring “rock star” constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinksy; and the 32nd annual Jefferson Fordham Debate, which focused on conflicts between civil rights and religious liberties. He encouraged graduates to build on the discoveries they made during law school and to keep learning and questioning as their careers unfold.
“I challenge all of you, our graduates, to consider what role you are going to play in the ongoing legal battles of these great recurring themes,” Adler said. “I predict your generation of lawyers will have to be the most entrepreneurial of any generation in U.S. history.”
Besides participating in a year of change and evolution in the law school’s new building, the class of 2016 set a record for the most hours spent on public service and experiential learning during their three-year student tenure. Each student, on average, spent 122 hours per year on the experiences, with grand total of 44,809 hours spent on service learning initiatives tied to the college’s clinical and pro bono work. Student participation in pro bono work and other volunteer opportunities is a key reason why the college has continually been recognized as one of the top law schools for practical training in the country, Adler said.
Adler channeled advice from Olympian Jesse Owens to encourage graduates to continue to strive for improvement throughout their careers.
“Life doesn’t give you all the practice races you need,” said Adler, quoting Owens, who won Olympic gold at the 1936 games in Berlin under the shadow of Adolf Hitler using the games for Nazi propaganda.
“Keep running those practice races. None of us will ever be perfect, but we can always strive to improve,” said Adler.