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Mark Gordon (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Mark Gordon (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

‘We are going to create the 21st century model of legal education’

Mark Gordon has big ideas and a big heart to make them happen.

At William Mitchell College of Law, the new president and dean, Mark Gordon already has set up his tournament size pingvpong table in the school and, as of this writing, has taken students out for ice cream four times. He’s been in town since July 1.

He also has taken the pulse of legal education and knows how it is changing. He is coming to  Mitchell as it moves toward final ABA accreditation for its combination with Hamline University School of Law and has big goals for the new institution.

If the past is prologue, that new model will include careful attention to students, access to legal education, public service, diversity, recruitment of students, and vigorous attention to the relationship between the school and the rest of the legal community not only by bringing the students to the law firms, but also
bringing the law firms to the school. It will include a curriculum and different ways of studying law that will serve various types of students, something for
which both schools are already well known.

“I think especially with the combination we are going to create the 21st century model of legal education and we’re going to play on a national level in a way that neither one of the institutions could have done separately,” he told Minnesota Lawyer.

Increases in faculty, courses and clinics

Gordon was the president of Defiance College in Defiance Ohio for the past six years. Before that, he was the dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law for seven years. According to WMCL’s website, at both Defiance and Mercy, he expanded the recruitment of entering students, increased the diversity of the student body, and gave students expanded opportunities for public service, hands-on experience, and international study.

Gordon’s career also includes serving as an associate professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, as general deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and on the staff of the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Arguing with Cuomo, who could switch sides effortlessly as he thought through an issue, convinced him to go to law school, he said.

Gordon graduated magna cum laude with a juris doctor from Harvard Law School. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University.

He is excited and intrigued by the opportunity to create a new model. A look at law schools around the country or a visit to the blog, Above the Law, illustrates that law schools are struggling and downsizing. William Mitchell is not.

“We’re the only place in the country that can now say [we have an] increase in faculty, increase in courses, increase in clinics, expanding the alumni network. It’s a pretty compelling story,” he said. “We created that model, we should be nationally known.”

One key component of that model is the clinical offerings. Mitchell has 13 clinics, 11 simulation courses and 17 externships as well as a flexible independent internship program. Hamline has 18 clinics listed on its web site along with other experiential learning opportunities.

One talking point is that William Mitchell also offers the innovative hybrid program, the first of its kind in the country. It combines intensive in-person experiential learning and online coursework that allows students to study the law from anywhere in the world. The first group of students started in January, and their evaluations are “about as enthusiastic as you can imagine,” he said. The second group comes in August and Gordon expects the school to hit the enrollment limit set by the ABA.

Another important element is student involvement in public service. “Every part of my life has been driven by a desire to serve,” Gordon said, noting that he expanded programs at Detroit Mercy and Defiance. While he was attracted to William Mitchell because public service is part of the DNA there, he also said that the legal community can expect “some pretty dramatic initiatives” in that area.

Gordon plans an aggressive recruiting regime with him deeply involved in it. “There is a great story to tell,” he said. When he was president of Defiance College, every student who visited the school spent a half hour at the president’s house, Gordon said. He’s been in touch with many of the entering students at Mitchell and is looking forward to meeting more.

The ABA accreditation committee has made its site visit and is scheduled to address the schools’ application for accreditation of the combined colleges at its September meeting. “It was an all-star team they sent, really high quality,” Gordon said. “They were incredibly impressed by the amount of work that had been done but also, there are so many good synergies [between the schools]. I look at it and say, ‘you have two fully accredited law schools. Neither one has any issue with its individual accreditation. We think one plus one is going to equal three or four or five. My expectation is that that is the conclusion that they will reach.”

Study hall at the president’s home

Gordon comes to William Mitchell after demonstrating his personal touch in Defiance and Detroit. In Detroit, he raised the school’s profile and hence its graduates’ prospects by enlisting the help of top lawyers to advise on creating a third-year curriculum that simulated actual practice. He also called more than 100 alumni and practicing Detroit lawyers to ask their opinions about what the school should be doing.

“Through in-house lawyers at auto maker DaimlerChrysler and auto-parts company Delphi, Mr. Gordon contacted partners at prominent national firms — most of whom had never heard of the school — and reached out to a handful of Harvard Law School classmates to set up his board,” reported the Wall Street Journal in 2007. National firms began to interview Detroit Mercy students.

Detroit Mercy built a one-of-a-kind Mobile Law Office for those who would normally not be able to afford legal services. A remodeled vehicle was equipped with desk and chairs, filing cabinets, a street map of Detroit, and a separate room for confidential client interviews. The following year, they handed out turkeys along with legal advice at Thanksgiving.

In Defiance, he gave students his cell phone number and opened his home for study time during the week and movies on Saturday nights. He invited every prospective student to meet with him at the president’s house and challenged some to ping pong. Incoming students got a coupon from his wife for a home-cooked meal.

Gordon has reached out to Minnesota lawyers and law firms, and found them “incredibly welcoming.” In addition, he said, “they all want to hire our students. They keep talking about these great students. I think they appreciate that the students are getting practical training.”

Diversity and access

Diversity is an issue very close to Gordon’s heart, “and I mean diversity in lots of different ways,” he said. Economic and class diversity is important. In Defiance, 40 to 45 percent of students were the first generation to go to college. “I developed

personal relationships with them and I saw the pressures they were under, the kinds of things that we take for granted were huge issues for them.”

For example, Gordon had the stereotypical tough football player “bawling his eyes out in my office.” The student felt guilty for abandoning his family and being in college. Gordon told the student, and other students, that it would help his family more if he found a way to build a new boat rather than to keep bailing out the old leaky boat. That wasn’t always persuasive.  “I could tell you incredible stories, uplifting ones and ones that break your heart.”

The variance application for the hybrid program that was submitted to the ABA blew him away, Gordon said. “I think just about any other law school in the country would have written an application that said, ‘technology is the wave of the future.’ What this application said was, ‘We have always stood for justice and access to the legal profession. We think we have found a way to use technology to further that access.’ I was stunned in a really positive way. And [the hybrid program] has in fact played out that way. You have doctors and police officers and land surveyors and people with affiliation with the military and teachers. It’s just this phenomenal mix of people.”

Mitchell’s  values of diversity and access were among of the reasons Gordon wanted to come here, he said. “I expect us to be a real leader in terms of that, and when I say real leader I mean in terms of welcoming students from diverse backgrounds and providing the support and other things they need to thrive, but also being a real voice in the community for that.”

A quick look at Mark Gordon, who likes classic movies, history, opera and baseball

ML: Twelve Angry Men or Witness for the Prosecution?

Gordon: Witness for the Prosecution

ML: Barbara Tuchman or Doris Kearns Goodwin?

Gordon: Doris Kearns Goodwin, particularly “A Team of Rivals.”

ML: Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson?

Gordon: Ben Franklin

ML: American League or National League?

Gordon: I root for the Detroit Tigers but also the New York Mets.

ML: Baseball Heroes?

Gordon: Tom Seaver and Willie Mays

ML: Favorite baseball movie?

Gordon: “Field of Dreams”

ML: Puccini or Verdi

Gordon: Puccini over early Verdi, but I can’t choose between Puccini and late Verdi.

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