The customary academic cycle continues at William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University School of Law, both in St. Paul. Fall classes for weekday students began Thursday at both institutions.
But it seems as if everything else is in flux at these schools — and in legal education and legal practice more generally. If American Bar Association accreditors “acquiesce” — the term of art for such matters — the two schools will be one by year’s end. They will become Mitchell|Hamline School of Law, under the leadership of this fall’s new Mitchell president, Mark Gordon, and consolidate operations at Mitchell’s campus at 875 Summit Av.
A merger of two separately accredited law schools is by itself a daunting undertaking, so rare that it may be unique in the U.S., Gordon told the Star Tribune Editorial Board this week. But the merger is but one of a number of changes — some newly contemplated, some already begun — as the school rethinks how it serves a changing profession. “We have a great opportunity to do something that’s never been done before,” Gordon said.
It’s an opportunity that has arisen from distress. While Hamline, the smallest of four Twin Cities law schools, and Mitchell, the second-largest, talked about a combination off and on for 15 years, it took the enrollment dip of the past five years to get them together. Hamline’s law school enrollment shrank by a third in the last five years, to 439 students in 2013-14. Mitchell experienced a 17 percent drop in the same period, to 809 students.
Those numbers are not atypical of law schools around the country. Recent years have seen dramatic downsizing at a number of major U.S. law firms and fewer job openings for new law school graduates. Technology has outsourced some legal work to nonlawyers, while corporate upheavals and globalization have disrupted attorney-client relationships.
Most law schools have cut programs and staff in response, potentially weakening preparation for a profession on which the American ideal of justice depends. By comparison, Mitchell|Hamline expects to start next year with 900 students, and is in a position to contemplate program expansion. It will begin with 36 faculty members, down from a total of 43 at the two schools last year.
Gordon has challenged the faculty to “create the law school of your dreams.” He noted that more lawyers need entrepreneurial skills and multicultural competencies. More seek to combine the law with another specialty. Students would benefit from fewer classroom lectures and more practical experience — something Mitchell pioneered with legal education clinics four decades ago.
Mitchell|Hamline has a chance to build on that pioneering tradition. In January, Mitchell launched a blend of online and classroom instruction that allows students geographically removed from St. Paul to obtain legal education. That “hybrid program” has already hit its 96-student enrollment cap. Its success stands to bring a larger online component to the rest of Mitchell|Hamline’s pedagogy, Gordon said.
What Mitchell|Hamline makes of its opportunity to remake legal education bears watching well beyond the Twin Cities legal community. Law schools around the country — and higher education institutions generally — are at risk of decline unless they better demonstrate their relevance and value to students. Their decline would in turn put the nation’s human capital at risk. We’re rooting for their renewal instead.