The class of 2012 at Empire College law school marked their graduation Sunday with a celebration of what tends to set them apart from their younger peers at other schools.

Most of the 14 graduates are entering the legal profession with years, if not decades, of experience in other careers. They include a retired Air Force captain, a registered nurse, a retired fire captain, a social worker employed in local hospice care, a career court clerk and a fast food restaurant manager.

"They can't pick up their things and move to a different state just to attend law school like the average, 22-year-old student," said graduate Alexander Wei in his valedictory speech to hundreds of family members, friends and college supporters gathered at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts on Sunday.

"They have commitments, they have jobs and they have families," he said. "That's probably the most impressive thing about students at Empire."

Four rigorous years of night school weeded out more than a few. Of the 58 students who started together in 2008, most did not make it. Seven from the class graduated one year early.

"You could say, and you would be accurate, that the odds were against them," said Sonoma County Superior Court Commissioner Anthony Wheeldin, a professor at the school.

The law school class of 2012 was the 36th in the history of the private college founded in 1961 by financier and philanthropist Henry Trione. They were as supportive and cohesive a group of students as the school has ever seen, college leaders said.

They also showed particular dedication to community service in the school's legal assistance clinics, offering help to seniors, immigrants and others in need of legal aid.

"When faced with the daily rigors of practicing law, particularly this group of people, I know, will conduct themselves with passion, with dignity and with integrity," William Robertson, dean of the school, told the audience.

The commencement address was given by John Burris, a prominent Oakland civil rights attorney who specializes in cases of police misconduct. He recently represented the family of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old man who was fatally shot by a BART police officer in 2009.

Burris quoted the late British leader Winston Churchill, telling graduates the day marked "the end of a beginning" and the start of something new for them. He urged graduates to be honest and not to get caught up in the "scorecard of winning and losing."

"You will be challenged from time to time," he said.

Among those getting their diploma was Tim Doherty, 55, a 32-year veteran of the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

On stage, the beefy retired captain wore a wide smile above his new uniform, a black gown with an academic's cape marking his entry into another profession.

Surrounded by friends and family at a reception afterwards, the former firefighter and union president drew parallels between his past and future career.

"We both deal with people who are in trouble, people who are confused or scared," he said. "We tell them about the situation they're in and help them get through it."