Duquesne law school honors Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg

As it conferred degrees on 172 students on Sunday, the Duquesne University School of Law furnished a model of legal excellence and personal character that administrators said students should seek to emulate: Mark Nordenberg, the departing chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Nordenberg, who is leaving his position in August, received an honorary doctor of laws degree and delivered the keynote address at the law school's 100th commencement exercises at the A.J. Palumbo Center in Uptown.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin law school and an expert in civil litigation, Mr. Nordenberg paid homage to the historical significance of the school's 100th graduating class and the impact of institutions of higher education while offering advice for fledgling lawyers entering an uncertain job market.

"Most of us tend to appreciate, but in somewhat vague ways, the durability and accumulated impact of our major universities," he told a lively crowd assembled in the gymnasium, draped with Duquesne and American flags. "When that history is described in terms that involve numbers -- in this case that this is the 100th graduating class of this law school -- the magnitude of the school's collective contributions through the power of high-quality higher education somehow seems more concrete and more impressive."

In preparing his remarks, Mr. Nordenberg said, he returned to time-honored descriptions of the law school experience, found in dusty old books he had scarcely revisited since leaving the deanship at Pitt's law school more than two decades ago. The view of a legal education they presented, without reference to a specific school, was not so rosy -- including the blunt "I hated the place" -- and Mr. Nordenberg said the comments certainly could not describe the Duquesne experience.

He told students that their education has prepared them to take on the gravest of responsibilities, as clients "regularly put into the hands of their lawyers the things that are most precious to them: their lives, their liberty and their property." Legal expertise entails adaptability, Mr. Nordenberg said, preparing students for "the inevitable changes that are a part of life."

This appreciation for variability will serve students well as they reckon with ongoing changes in the legal profession, he added, stressing that it is the world at large that is changing, not simply the legal academy.

"You need to believe in yourself," Mr. Nordenberg said. "You need to aim high, work hard and never stop learning."

He specifically encouraged graduates to "believe in the basic goodness of people" -- refuting the logic that "nice guys finish last" -- to stay connected to networks of people who have helped them and to strive to contribute to something larger than themselves.

In addition to the honorary degree, a surprise awaited Mr. Nordenberg at the commencement ceremony. His professor and mentor at Wisconsin, Frank Tuerkheimer, had flown in for the event and was seated in the front row. Mr. Tuerkheimer had hearty praise for his former student, saying after the ceremony that he wasn't surprised by the honor. He said he knew Mr. Nordenberg was "enormously talented" virtually from their first interaction.

Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne Law School, quipped that the university was at the heart of Mr. Nordenberg's success, as both his wife and sister have degrees from Duquesne. Mr. Nordenberg agreed, saying that the honorary degree fills a hole in his resume -- and that he now hopes to "command more respect in future family gatherings."

In final remarks to graduates, Duquesne chancellor John E. Murray Jr. observed that students' perspectives have been transformed by attending law school. With a legal education under their belt, he said, they now see the world in legal language and procedure: "Your whole dimensions have changed."

The question, he concluded, is: "What do I do now?"

Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3775 or on Twitter @isb_isaac.

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