University of Utah School of Law graduates are entering a "contentious" world, one in which university faculty may be afraid to enter a classroom where they know students may legally be carrying concealed weapons.

That was part of the message delivered to 140 graduates Friday by David Pershing, U. senior vice president for academic affairs.

Sitting behind Pershing was commencement speaker and Utah Supreme Court Justice Ronald E. Nehring, who along with his fellow justices are weighing the fate of the U. gun policy.

The U. and the state have locked legal and political horns over the school's longheld policy of banning staff, faculty and students from bringing guns on campus. The university won the first round in district court, so the state appealed to the high court.

Meanwhile, the lawmakers this year passed a law that says only the Legislature, and not the U. or its publicly funded peers, has the right to regulate firearms. The U. Board of Trustees recently voted to enforce the university's anti-gun policy despite the law.

All parties are waiting for the state Supreme Court to decide whether the Utah Constitution exempts the U. from the Legislature's authority over gun laws.

But Nehring didn't go near the topic of guns, instead choosing to remain light in his words on the fashion of the day — mortarboards and gowns.

"Great costumes," he told grads. "It's your day, and your getup proves it."

What the outfit means, if only for a few hours, Nehring said, is that graduates can be suspended in a safe realm, temporarily immune from things like student loans and the stress that will come with being a lawyer. Underneath the gowns and skins of graduates is a light he called "the photons of legal knowledge."

When the gowns come off, though, Nehring pointed out, the question will become, "What now?"

Which gave relevance to Pershing's earlier advice that graduates do something besides just make money. "I want to challenge you to do something more."

And that's exactly what grads Craig Condie and Jana Dickson have in mind.

Condie, 28, will start out with a clerkship in Palmer, Alaska, and after that his interest lies either in environmental law or poverty law issues. During his schooling, Condie went to "street law" sites — one was under a viaduct — to advise homeless people on their rights regarding debt, landlord/tenant issues, divorce and child support.

"I kind of came to law school because I thought about things I could do to work in the community," he said. His career choice is rooted in a love of the work. "It's going to be a whole lot less money than if I tried to get a job with one of the big firms. . . . To me, it just doesn't make sense to have a job that's not what I want in order to make a whole lot of money."

Dickson would agree. Her plans are to use a loan forgiveness fellowship, which will probably commit her to 10 years of public-interest law, possibly helping children or low-income clients. If she fulfills that commitment, it could mean up to $30,000 to help her pay off student loans.

Dickson's lifestyle will be one of "voluntary simplicity," living off limited means and working toward social justice.

"I wouldn't find happiness the other way," she said. "I think there's certain expectations that come with being a law student and being a lawyer, that you're expected to make a lot of money . . . I think the old stereotype doesn't fit."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com