Don Lewis, the dean of Hamline University’s School of Law during a rough spot for all U.S. law schools, is leaving his academic post at the end of the year to return to private practice.

Lewis has informed faculty and students that his five-year tenure at Hamline will conclude on Dec. 31, after which he will rejoin Nilan Johnson Lewis, the firm he helped found 17 years ago.

“I am looking forward to a change of scenery,” Lewis said in an interview Tuesday.

In a separate statement, Lewis said his work at Hamline “has been the most fulfilling and most challenging in my career.”

Hamline President Linda Hanson praised the former assistant U.S. attorney’s presence at the school for bringing “a renewed external focus on preparing our students for multiple pathways to professional success.”

A search to find Lewis’ replacement is in the works, said law school spokesman Dave Jarzyna.

Lewis’ otherwise successful tenure at Hamline was marked by an economic recession that started two months after he became dean in 2008 and quickly battered the legal profession first and law schools second over the next few years.

“Law schools felt the tsunami two years later when applications started to fall and then continued to decline,” Lewis said. “I’m not sure we’ve seen the bottom.”

With that scenario, the challenge for Lewis was to “right-size” the ratio between students and faculty.

“If you want to maintain academic quality, by definition you have to get smaller,” said Lewis, noting that an early retirement program offered by Hamline allowed the school to reduce faculty and staff with minimal pain.

“It’s a tough job being at any law school these days,” said Roy S. Ginsburg, a Minneapolis lawyer who advises other lawyers on the practice of law. “The fact that Don hung in there is very impressive. People are questioning the value of a legal education, there are not nearly as many opportunities as there used to be and no one knows what the future holds.”

Lewis, 60, said he will return to his legal practice in employment litigation, health care law and civil fraud and white-collar defense.

A St. Paul native, Lewis got his undergraduate degree in journalism at Northwestern University and his law degree at Harvard. Lewis worked in the Justice Department handling desegregation cases involving black and white colleges in the South before joining the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota in 1982 and going into private practice six years later.

Lewis has been involved in several high-profile cases, including the University of Minnesota men’s basketball cheating scandal in 1999. He most recently agreed to lead the internal investigation into the Lilydale Regional Park landslide in May that took the lives of two St. Louis Park children.