The faculty and staff at Mitchell Hamline School of Law are building their dream law school.
That’s the view of Mark Gordon, the still relatively new dean of the new institution recently merged from the two former law schools. Gordon has been at the school for about a year and says it is now able to compete nationally in a way that William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University School of Law could not do separately.
The result, thus far, is a curriculum that stretches far and wide but still centers on core concerns of preparing students for the careers they want while also being engaged in community service and social justice issues, Gordon said. At Mitchell Hamline, client skills and career development are an integral part of the students’ entire education, Gordon said.
“We discovered that the DNA of both schools was very similar. One called it practical wisdom and the other called it hands-on experience, but they were really talking about the same thing,” Gordon said.
Unlike many schools, Mitchell Hamline is seeing higher enrollment in the new academic year, with the new class bigger than previous Mitchell and Hamline classes combined. The school has been recruiting aggressively but also has a great product to offer and is attracting students from all over the country, Gordon said. It is the largest law school in the region, defined as Minnesota and its border states.
Besides a full-time and a part-time curriculum, the school offers a hybrid program, the first of its kind in the country. The hybrid program combines intensive in-person experiential learning and online coursework that allows students to study from anywhere in the world, with some visits to the school.
The school emphasizes client contact from day one, Gordon said. Students work with real clients and also in simulations. Its website explains, “Experiential learning is not a department, it is who we are.” The Minnesota Justice Foundation offers even first-year law students an opportunity to work with lawyers in legal advice settings or by doing research.
The nub of the experiential learning process is through the Rosalie Wahl Legal Practice Center, a law office within the school composed of students and professors. Experiential learning also encompasses advice and persuasion, transactional work and simulation courses that allow students to combine all the different skills. It also continues a long tradition of clinical work that dates back to 1973.
Additionally, the school is developing separate educational tracks for students who want to go into business through its Center for Law and Business. Students may earn a Law and Business Certificate after coursework that includes a range of business topics including accounting and finance, organizational structure and governance, business strategies and planning, capitalization, taxation, compliance and risk management, and business communications.
It also offers expanded certificate programs in international business negotiation and bank compliance. Mentor programs and externships are also available.
There’s no confusion about the goals at Mitchell Hamline: It’s clear the purpose of the practical education is gaining employment. “We want our students to have an advantage when they hit the job market,” Gordon said. After a full exposure to the experiential learning curriculum, the student will be much better prepared, he said.
“These are the pieces of 21st century legal education,” Gordon says. “Career services are fully integrated into the curriculum.”
Students start out their education at Mitchell Hamline by developing personal career plans and networking plans that they use throughout their studies. They also have the opportunity to meet with practitioners in what are called “career conversations.” Lawyers in practice, business or government meet with students who are interested in their fields.
The variety of courses reflects the profession and the career paths of lawyers. “We want to give our students a range of options. Students change their minds and don’t stay in one place. If you want to go the traditional route we’ll help you with that, but we also want to help with other routes,” Gordon said.
Career development also encompasses other employment options, Gordon says. “We’ve always been the place that trains you to be a lawyer. Now we’re also the place that trains you in the law whether you want to be a lawyer or not,” he says.
Gordon is referring to the online certificate programs planned or offered by the school in different areas. Its newest program is a 13-week certificate course in cybersecurity that has 35 students involved from a variety of companies and backgrounds. The school has also offered certificate programs in health care compliance and international business negotiation, and may add human resource and dispute resolution program to its offerings.
“It’s a totally different way of looking at the role a law school can play in training people but also within the broader community,” Gordon said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress and I think it’s why we’re getting students from all over the country.”
The school has reached out to the community in other ways such as hosting the Latino Law Camp last summer. Junior high school-age students spent their time learning about law, preparing for mock trials and visiting law-related offices.
Next summer it will host a conference of the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, a national group offering preparation programs and academic support to students in hopes of diversifying the enrollment at law schools.
Variety of support
Gordon’s dream law school will have a diverse population and provide the different kinds of support students from different backgrounds need, including personal attention from the dean.
About 21 percent of the students at Mitchell Hamline are self-identified as belonging to a minority group, and about 24 percent of the entering class is minorities, he said.
Gordon is also very conscious of economic and class diversity. “I know we have a lot of students who were the first generation to go to college and come from low-income backgrounds. That is particularly close to my heart. Their success is not just their own individual success; it’s the path for siblings and cousins. [We want to] provide a level of support while the students are here, which is not the traditional way of doing it. Students need academic support but they also need social support and personal support,” Gordon said.
That’s why Gordon gives out his cell phone number to students and asks them to text him so he has their contact information stored. It’s also why he sends out an email weekly inviting any students who are interested to join him at the Grand Ole Creamery. Recently, a student sent him a text wondering where he was because a group was waiting for him at the ice cream parlor. Gordon was in a meeting, but he texted right back.