Students outside of law school.
Liam James Doyle for University of St. Thomas

School of Law Celebrates 2023 Commencement

The University of St. Thomas School of Law conferred degrees to 184 students on May 20, 2023. Among them, 147 students earned their Juris Doctor (J.D.), 16 earned an LL.M. in U.S. law and 21 earned a master’s or LL.M. degree in organizational ethics and compliance.

Professor Thomas Berg, who was elected professor of the year by the Class of 2023, hooded the graduates. Father Dennis Dease, St. Thomas President Emeritus, conferred the degrees.

In his opening remarks, interim Dean Joel Nichols noted that the Class of 2023 marks a milestone as the 20th class to graduate from St. Thomas Law. He also reflected on the academic journey of the J.D. students, who started law school amid the pandemic.

“I don’t need to tell you how the last three plus years have tested our resilience,” Nichols said. “For our J.D. graduates, you started in fall 2020, in a time of masks and distancing, partial Zoom (classes) and more. That’s been very tough and it makes this marker today even more meaningful. The perseverance and grit of the Class of 2023 is admirable. We honor and congratulate all of our graduates.”

Class achievements

The J.D. class performed more than 10,400 hours of public service work over the course of their legal education. St. Thomas Law requires each student to perform a minimum of 50 hours of community service on the belief that all lawyers have an obligation to share their skills and knowledge. Fifteen members of the class volunteered more than 100 hours over the course of their law school careers. One of them, Megan Lindsey, contributed more than 1,000 hours of service to the community.

Eight members of the Class of 2023 were recognized with Mission Awards during law school. The annual awards honor law students, faculty, staff and alumni whose activities and work exemplify the school’s mission, vision and values.

It is a tradition of each graduating J.D. class to give a collective gift to the law school. The Class of 2023 chose to fund a scholarship for an incoming law student and raised more than $2,000. This year’s gift was coordinated by class representatives Austin Northagen and Michelle Lester.

Keynote speaker Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette

The Hon. Toddrick S. Barnette, chief judge of Hennepin County District Court, gave the keynote address. He is a member of the law school’s Board of Governors and serves as an adjunct professor in the Mentor Externship Program. During his remarks, Barnette emphasized to graduates the power and responsibility that accompanies their legal education.

Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette address the School of Law graduates. (Liam James Doyle for University of St. Thomas)

“Lawyers have played a critical part and role in shaping our society. Lawyers are the guardians of justice, the protectors of individual rights and the defenders of the rule of law,” Barnette said. “It’s not just about being a lawyer, it’s about using your skill and knowledge to make a positive impact and contribution to the world around you.

“… we’re facing many challenges today,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives and our economy. We’re grappling with racial injustice, climate change and political polarization. But you have a unique opportunity as graduates of this university to make a difference in those areas and many more. One of the most important things you can do as a lawyer, of course, is lend your voice to advocate for those people who cannot speak for themselves. You’ve been trained to think critically, analyze complex issues and communicate effectively. These skills will serve you well as you work to make the world a better place.”

Class speaker Austin Northagen

This year’s elected student speaker was Austin Northagen. During law school, Northagen served as a member of Student Government, symposium editor for the St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy and president of the Environmental Law Society. He was also part of the school’s Thurgood Marshall Memorial Moot Court Competition team. Following graduation, Northagen will join the Minneapolis firm Squires, Waldspurger & Mace P.A.

In his remarks, Northagen spoke about attending law school during the pandemic and shared how he believes the challenges of the past several years will ultimately help him and his classmates in their legal careers.

“Just like we had to figure out how to succeed in cyber law school, we’re again going to have to figure out how to succeed in a new type of legal career,” Northagen said. “But one thing I know that separates St. Thomas Law from other law schools is our sense of community. Right? Sometimes we were gunners, but we weren’t cutthroat with each other. We supported each other. And it is those same relationships, that same sense of community that helped me succeed in law school, that I’m hoping each of us will continue, to succeed after law school.”