Hamline News

An Agreement on the Table

law-big

After more than 40 years as a leader in legal education, Hamline University School of Law will combine with William Mitchell College of Law to become Mitchell|Hamline School of Law.

By Marla Holt 

Two of Minnesota’s leading law schools, Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law, have announced plans to combine into Mitchell | Hamline School of Law. This decision, which is being hailed as a smart strategic move for both schools, will create a powerhouse institution that is poised to become the flagship law school in the Midwest.

“This move brings the best of each existing school together and is a win for Hamline, for William Mitchell, for the legal community both regionally and nationally, for alumni, and most of all, for our students,” said Hamline president Linda Hanson.

Mitchell | Hamline School of Law will open its doors at William Mitchell’s existing location on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul in fall 2015, pending acquiescence by the American Bar Association, which could happen as early as August. The autonomous, nonprofit law school will be governed by a board of trustees nominated by both Hamline and Mitchell and will retain a strong, visible, and long-lasting affiliation with Hamline University, whose president will have a permanent seat on the board. Its president and dean will be Mark Gordon, who is currently president of Defiance College in Ohio and will bring nearly 30 years of experience in higher education and public service to the position. 

Mitchell | Hamline will be home to nationally ranked programs in alternative dispute resolution, clinical education, and health law, and will continue a strong commitment to innovation in the classroom and providing access to legal education among diverse populations. 

“Our common missions of producing problem-solving, practice-ready lawyers who are interested in the public good makes this combination an excellent, strategic fit for both schools,” said former Hamline Law School dean Jean Holloway, who was a key leader in the negotiations. Holloway recently returned to private practice; however, she will continue to be involved in the ABA accreditation process for Mitchell | Hamline School of Law. Hamline School of Law faculty have elected professor and former associate dean Marie Failinger to serve as interim dean.

The bold and transformative move—long anticipated by those closely associated with both schools—comes at a time when law school enrollments have been shrinking nationwide. The combined school likely will have about 900 students. 

While concern over smaller entering classes played a role in the decision to combine, the foremost focus was on finding a way to continue to provide the absolute best in legal education to both institutions’ students, said Hamline trustee Ken Morris JD ’92, a member of the negotiating team. “This is an opportunity to create one school that is exponentially better than two,” he said. “We’re clearly stronger standing together than we are either one standing alone.” 

Talk of combining the two schools had been going on for roughly 15 years. Economic concerns aside, the visionary leadership at both schools, coupled with similar missions and cultures and complementary programs, led to the deal’s consummation, said Hamline law professor Edwin Butterfoss. 

“This couldn’t have happened without extraordinary leaders in place, particularly Dean Holloway, who worked tirelessly to accomplish this because it’s the right thing to do,” Butterfoss said. “This is a signature testament to an institution committed to collaboration. It’s a true combination into a singularly better law school.” 

As with any large-scale change to their school and alma mater, there has been some mixed feelings among current students and alumni upon hearing the news of the schools combining.  

“I chose Hamline Law for its commitment to public service and its emphasis on getting students to think about solving problems creatively,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi JD ’95. “I don’t believe those qualities will be lost in the merger, partly because the market demands lawyers with strong dispute resolution skills, but I’ll admit to being a bit saddened by the news and the loss of Hamline Law’s singular identity. At the same time, I respect the school’s efforts to get in front of the changes in the legal education landscape and create a new school that will be sustainable.”   

Hamline Law professor James Coben said that the combination is an excellent real-world example of creative problem solving, a skill that students learn in Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute, which is ranked third in the country by U.S. News & World Report. 

“This is a tremendous example to students of the power of skilled negotiation by leaders willing to get past the conventional win-lose framing that often occurs in mergers and acquisitions,” Coben said. “I’m thrilled that we can model leadership that is willing to think boldly and to act in the interest of providing the best product over time.”   

Mitchell | Hamline’s location at William Mitchell’s current campus may present one of the biggest challenges in building alumni affinity for the combined school, Choi said. “Hamline Law alumni don’t have a connection to that physical space. Going forward, I’m hopeful that Hamline will continue to maintain affinity through meaningful human connections, which have always been a part of the Hamline law community.”

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank JD ’77 believes close personal relationships with faculty members and law alumni—a hallmark of Hamline’s personalized approach to legal education—will continue to benefit students. “Both schools together have many more alumni for students to connect with for clinical practice,” Frank said. “The combined school opens up a host of new opportunities for students to get experience within the law community.” 

The combination of the two schools means students will have access to an expanded alumni network (the combined alumni body totals more than 18,000 graduates), a more robust curriculum, and a combined faculty with a wider range of expertise and practical experience. Another benefit will be improved enrollment options—offering more than any other law school—including full-time, part-time, weekend, and hybrid on-campus/online JD programs. Students also may pursue dual degrees or earn their undergraduate degree and law degree in just six years. In addition, students will have access to Hamline’s athletic facilities, library, and cultural programs.  

Alex Beeby JD ’16, president of Hamline’s Student Bar Association, believes that as immediate concerns about transitional details are allayed, student excitement is growing about being a part of the new institution. 

“I think students realize that Hamline and William Mitchell share a common vision, that both schools are about preparing lawyers to serve their communities well,” he said. “I’m excited that the merger will bring a renewed vitality to all of our great programs with expanded faculty expertise, a larger student base, and a larger alumni network.”  

 As with any change, communication is key. Holloway said that Hamline will do its best to ensure a seamless transition. “Our primary objective will be to have as few bumps in the road as possible.” 

The university will continue to answer questions as they arise and will offer varied opportunities for alumni, faculty, and students to have a central role in ensuring that Mitchell | Hamline combines the best of both schools.

“This has been the right idea for a long time,” Coben said. “We should all be proud of the leaders at Hamline and at William Mitchell for their vision and skill in taking this path.”