The obvious reaction to the merger of Hamline University’s law school with the independent William Mitchell College of Law was to see it largely as a capitulation, with Hamline exiting a dismal market.
Maybe getting out while the getting was still even possible.
There is an element of truth in that.
The main campus of the Mitchell | Hamline School of Law will be Mitchell’s, less than 3 miles away from Hamline in St. Paul. Mitchell will have the majority of the board seats. Most importantly, the law school goes off Hamline’s books. If there’s a budget shortfall looming, it won’t be Hamline’s problem.
But Linda Hanson, Hamline University’s president, sure wouldn’t characterize the move as an effort to shed the “risk” of operating a law school.
Hamline’s name will be on it. Joint undergrad and law degree programs will remain in the university’s course catalog. And Hamline’s still got a big network of alumni who care passionately whether the new school succeeds.
She makes a convincing argument that Hamline still has a big investment in legal education — and merging with Mitchell certainly seems to be the best way to preserve it.
News of this merger made ripples nationally as one of the first steps in what’s expected to be a long wave of contraction, as shrinking demand for lawyers drives down applications to law schools. Hanson said that when she came to the university as president in 2005, Hamline’s total enrollment in the law school was more than 700. Now it’s a little over 300.
Mitchell’s enrollment has come down by a lot, too, and together they will be approximately half the size of their total enrollment of just a few years ago. “None of us felt it was just cyclical and it’s going to come back,” Hanson said of the legal marketplace.
It’s hard to sugarcoat just how bad the job market really is.
In an analysis by a publication called Law School Transparency, the law school class of 2013 was the largest ever at just under 47,000 graduates nationwide. That class was kicked out into a frigid job market that saw about 26,000 of them find full-time career path jobs in the legal profession.
To land one of those jobs, the study found that it really matters which of the 200 or so traditional American law schools a student attends.
Many students dream of a shot at working for a big law firm, maybe one with at least 100 attorneys. But less than 13 percent of 2013 grads got one of those jobs. And grads from just 25 law schools got 60 percent of them.
Of Hamline’s 2013 class of 185 graduates, just three found full-time jobs at firms with more than 100 lawyers.
And at 64 of the law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, including Hamline, more than half the 2013 grads couldn’t find a full-time job that required a law degree.
All of this means that the downturn in the market puts even more pressure on the law schools on the bottom half of the widely watched ranking published by U.S. News & World Report.
The University of Minnesota’s law school remains top-tier. Even though Hamline was next among Minnesota schools, it was way down the list nationally at 121. And Hamline seemed to be the Minnesota school singled out by law school critics as the most logical candidate for a shutdown.
But Hanson said Hamline didn’t want to do that.
“No. No, not at all,” said Hanson, when asked if closing the school was even considered. “We knew that we could operate our law school, because we had right-sized our faculty and staff to the size of the classes we knew would be coming in. And the Board of Trustees was absolutely committed to continuing to have a law school. The question was what kind of law school we want to be.”
Hanson said she’d been routinely asked when Hamline would merge with Mitchell, because it made so much sense. They each have particular strengths. Mitchell has a long tradition as the night school, while Hamline does weekend classes. Mitchell has a new program combining on-campus and online teaching.
But when the merger closes, assuming it’s blessed by the ABA, the new school will remain decidedly third tier. That shouldn’t be reassuring for its graduates.
Hanson talked about broader career options than law firms for recent grads, but a law school provides straightforward vocational training. Getting a job that doesn’t really require a law degree — even if it clearly helps to have one — is not a convincing argument for going to law school.
It’s kind of like the Culinary Institute of America claiming success for a young chef who ultimately finds his life’s work as a bartender.
The dismal market for young lawyers fills one ugly little corner of the Internet, sites like a chatroom called JDJunkyard.com and a blog simply called “The Law School Scam, Exposed.”
It’s hardly a surprise that at least one of these law school bloggers was positively exultant that the Twin Cities will soon be down one law school.
There is of course, another side to the argument about the value of a Hamline or Mitchell law degree. If these schools hadn’t provided a good value to a lot of people who wanted to be lawyers, they wouldn’t have lasted this long. And taking one option off the table for the next generation doesn’t seem to be cause for celebration.
The president of the Hamline Law alumni board, Jen Randolph Reise, explained that she easily accepted the rationale for the merger. And she’s hopeful that the qualities that made Hamline a good option for her are preserved.
Now a lawyer at Regis Corp., she had other options for law school, including the University of Minnesota.
“Law school is always a really difficult experience,” she said, explaining her choice of Hamline. “It’s so much better to go through it with people who are trying to help and support each other, as opposed to cutthroat competitive.”