Some of you may share the sentiment of one of Shakespeare’s characters, who famously said: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Or you may agree with famed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who called the law “one of the vastest products of the human mind,” the practice of which “tends to make good citizens.”
However you feel about lawyers, there is good news this fall about two of our Minnesota law schools. The American Bar Association (ABA) Accreditation Committee recently recommended approval of the merger of the Hamline University School of Law — where I once served as dean — and the William Mitchell College of Law. If the ABA Council agrees in December, Mitchell Hamline School of Law will make its debut soon after.
This is a good thing. It’s a rational response to the fact that law school enrollment has declined in this market, as it has around the country, while at the same time it creates a compelling exception to the prevailing retrenchment in legal education. Instead of cuts and reduced programming, Mitchell Hamline will offer students more faculty, more courses, more clinical offerings and a dramatically expanded alumni network.
Not everyone who goes to law school wants to practice law in the traditional way, and both Hamline and Mitchell have strong traditions of training students for a variety of careers. Hamline has a Dispute Resolution Institute, perennially ranked in the top five nationally, that teaches law students as well as other students and professionals the skills to resolve conflicts outside of the courtroom — an important social good. And Mitchell’s one-of-a-kind hybrid on-campus/online J.D. program is giving midcareer professionals the chance to start a new career in law or to deepen the practice of their current profession. We need good lawyers to be litigators, but we also need them working in government, banks, nonprofits, housing agencies, community organizations and elsewhere.
Look at a few examples in our own community. Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Susan Haigh, president and CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and former chair of the Metropolitan Council, and Kit Hadley, former St. Paul Public Library director — all have law degrees. They have used their legal training to perform high-level, important work for the community that doesn’t involve practicing law.
Assuming the merger is approved, Mitchell Hamline will benefit from outstanding leadership in its first president and dean. Mark Gordon has been running Mitchell since July and will lead the combined school. He has stellar credentials: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia, and a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard (a law school I’ve always respected for being the only one to reject my application, many years ago).
Mark worked with Andrew Cuomo in the early 1990s, when Cuomo — now governor of New York — was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Their area was community building, which required Mark to marshal resources from health and human services, employment, and other areas, in addition to housing.
Mark carried that broad, community-based approach into his job as dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and then as president at Defiance College. At both places, he expanded students’ opportunities for public service, hands-on experience and international study. At Defiance, for example, all students in good academic standing were guaranteed the opportunity to study abroad. Mark has a desire to connect to the wider world, not to remain in a silo. I worked with Mark when he was at HUD. A few qualities struck me immediately about him: unpretentious, direct and focused on mission, strong sense of integrity. In addition, he has the gift we all need — a great sense of humor.
He’s got the right experience and the perfect approach for the leader of a law school in today’s world, where not every law student is dreaming of joining the partner track at a big firm. As Mark is fond of saying, “There are two reasons to go to law school. Either because you want to be a lawyer or because you don’t want to be a lawyer. If you fit into one of those categories, you should come.”
George Latimer is a former mayor of St. Paul and former dean of the Hamline University School of Law.