With enrollment in a free-fall nationally, some predicted it was just a matter of time before some American law schools started disappearing.

Now, Minnesota is dropping from four to three. On Friday, Hamline University and William Mitchell College of Law announced that they are merging their law schools, which have been rivals for four decades.

The surprise announcement comes at a time when law schools throughout the country are struggling to fill their seats, and first-year enrollment has dropped to a 40-year low. This would be the first merger of two law schools in memory, according to a spokesman for the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools.

The new combined school will be called the Mitchell|Hamline School of Law, and will be located mainly on Mitchell's campus in St. Paul. It will be headed by Mitchell's new dean, Mark Gordon, who was appointed just last month.

"What this is going to do is give the combined law school a sufficient size to be able to offer a truly robust program of legal education," said Eric Janus, who is stepping down as Mitchell's dean this summer. He said the newly combined school will have about 900 students. As of last year, Hamline had 439 students and Mitchell had 809.

Jean Holloway, who was named Hamline's first female law school dean in December 2013, declined to say if she'll remain at the new school. "It remains to be seen," she said.

Janus acknowledged that combining the two schools will result in some cuts in faculty and staff. But he declined to speculate how many jobs may be lost and said he hoped to avoid layoffs through voluntary attrition. Mitchell has the equivalent of 35 full-time faculty members and Hamline has 26, according to school officials.

The announcement follows years of on-again, off-again merger talks among Twin Cities law schools. Many observers have questioned the need for four law schools in the metro area, some of them competing for the same students. The other two law schools, at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas, have seen similar drops in enrollment.

"It's a bold move, that's for sure," Richard Kyle, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, said of the merger. "The landscape for legal education has changed significantly," he said, "and it stands to reason that law schools are looking for innovative ways to adapt."

'Something's got to give'

Nationwide, law school applications have plunged dramatically since 2010. Experts say many prospective students became leery of going deeply in debt for a law degree as jobs for graduates were disappearing.

Hamline's law school, which opened in 1975, saw its enrollment drop by a third since 2010. Mitchell, which was founded in 1900, saw a 17 percent drop in the same period.

But even now that the economy is recovering, experts say, the numbers aren't bouncing back.

"There aren't enough students, there are too many law schools. Something's got to give," said Jerry Organ, a University of St. Thomas law professor who has studied the changes in law school enrollment.

Organ said he won't be surprised if there are more mergers, or closings, among the nation's 200-plus accredited law schools.

"I'm just saying there's no reason to think law schools should be immune from market forces," he said.

Linda Hanson, the president of Hamline University, said the new law school will operate independently of Hamline, but that its students will be able to share the university's library, cultural and recreational facilities.

She added that the new school will feature "distinctive programs" from both Hamline and Mitchell, including nationally ranked programs in alternative dispute resolution and health law.

The two schools will continue to operate separately until the merger is approved by the American Bar Association. Officials say that if the ABA gives its blessing this summer, as hoped, the merged programs would begin this fall.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384