The merger of the William Mitchell and Hamline University law schools was born of opportunity, not desperation. Yet Star Tribune coverage (“Amid trying times, 2 law schools decide to become 1,” Feb. 14, and “Merging law schools was smarter than closing,” Lee Schafer column, March 1) has focused on current enrollment trends and fails to recognize the tremendous benefit this merger brings to our community.
The merits of merger were evident — and discussed multiple times — long before the Great Recession of ’08. Granted, the economic pressures that strain law schools and depress legal employment may have finally led these rival institutions to overcome prior “Be-True-to-Your-School” obstacles. But even if economic necessity was the mother of invention, the resulting “invention” — Mitchell|Hamline School of Law — can now offer its students the interdisciplinary resources of a liberal arts university, as well as exceptional clinical (“real world”) experiences and the opportunity to develop expertise in complex areas that are highly in demand (e.g., international, health care, compliance and intellectual property).
The merger of these schools strengthens the combined curriculum. One example: More Mitchell|Hamline students can cross-register to pursue joint degrees (J.D./M.B.A., J.D./M.P.A., J.D./M.A.O.L.), better preparing themselves for opportunities in specific areas of commerce or government. Another example: Mitchell|Hamline students will now have access to a more robust international law program, better preparing themselves to practice in an increasingly global marketplace. In this merged law school, students will have greater opportunity to receive a truly world-class education.
I did not attend either school. But I can attest that Mitchell and Hamline grads are formidable courtroom opponents. They are senior corporate counsel. Many choose a career in public service, helping to improve access to justice. They’ve served as legislators, public officials, and federal and state court judges, including as justices on our Minnesota Supreme Court and (when I began practice) Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Both Mitchell and Hamline have, as a core mission, access to legal education. Both institutions have made law school possible for those whose life circumstances might otherwise have precluded the opportunity to study law. Mitchell|Hamline students routinely balance full- or part-time jobs — in the workplace or on the homefront — with demanding academic schedules. At graduations, I love hearing kids shout, “Way to go, Mom (or Dad)!” as their parents receive diplomas.)
Ignoring these achievements, Schafer dismissively portrays Mitchell and Hamline as “third tier” law schools based on U.S. News & World Report rankings. Most in the legal profession understand that these rankings are not a fair measure of the quality of education provided by law schools — or of their positive contributions to our professional and civic communities.
Schafer uses another questionable metric to value Hamline and Mitchell law grads: Placement in big firms (100-plus attorneys). Nationwide, far less than 50 percent of law grads practice in such firms, or even want to, and, in Minnesota, successful law grads appear to aspire even less to these jobs. In fact, there are relatively few such firms in Minnesota or the Upper Midwest. Despite Schafer’s characterization to the contrary, law-related jobs not requiring a law license, such as those in corporate and regulatory compliance, are in high demand, reflecting the value a legal education brings to those jobs.
Clearly, supply and demand in law-related jobs must be addressed, and the Mitchell|Hamline merger is a positive response. The merger strengthens both schools academically and financially, to the benefit of students. For some time, Mitchell and Hamline have been each other’s chief competitor. Now, Mitchell|Hamline may initially enroll fewer students overall, responding to declining market demand and potentially resulting in higher admissions standards.
Even with the merger, Mitchell|Hamline must do more to maximize the likelihood that its graduates will find jobs that warrant their investment in a legal education. Helping students pursue academic and extracurricular achievements distinguishing them as job-seekers is a start. Law schools and underperforming students must also candidly confront the realities of the job market, and consider whether a student’s further investment in legal education makes sense. Law schools must subordinate self-interest in collecting more tuition to their countervailing responsibility to underperforming students who are accumulating significant debt.
The Mitchell|Hamline merger is a major step in the right direction. The new school will greatly exceed the sum of its parts. Those who have accomplished this should be saluted.
Clifford M. Greene founded the Greene Espel law firm in Minneapolis. He has taught on the William Mitchell faculty at several junctures in his career, and served on its board from 1997-2006. He graduated from Harvard College and Cornell Law School.