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Anthony Niedwiecki
A former commercial litigation lawyer, Mitchell Hamline Dean Anthony Niedwiecki traded in a possible political career in Florida to solidify his academic career. (Photo: Rebecca Slater for Mitchell Hamline School of Law)

Niedwiecki’s up for a challenge

A few days before he announced that the Mitchell Hamline School of Law would move completely to distance learning this fall, new Dean Anthony Niedwiecki spoke to Minnesota Lawyer for a get-acquainted interview.

A former commercial litigation lawyer, Niedwiecki traded in a possible political career in Florida to solidify his academic career, taking a job at Chicago’s John Marshall School of Law in 2010. There he ended up as dean for academic affairs and director of the lawyering skills program.

Seven years later, he was dean of San Francisco’s Golden Gate University School of Law, where he helped improve student achievement and diversity, helped strengthen the school’s finances, and guided it back into compliance with ABA accreditation standards.

Along the way, Niedwiecki has maintained his status as an LGBTQ advocate. He co-founded Fight OUT Loud, a nonprofit dedicated to countering discrimination and hatred. That part of his life kicked into gear one day in 2007, after he and his husband, Waymon Hudson, heard anti-gay Old Testament passages blasted over a Florida airport intercom. It also led to his election as an Oakland Park, Florida, city commissioner and, briefly, vice mayor. This July 24 conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How long have you been on board now?

A: I started on July 1. I’ve been doing some work for the school pretty much since I got hired. My goal at the beginning has been to introduce myself to every single person that works at the school. So all 200-something employees, I’ve spent 30-minute one-on-ones with them. I started that at the end of March, beginning of April. One more day and I’ll have gotten through all the employees at the school. It’s been really helpful to me.

Coming into a new school like this during a pandemic, it’s a very, very strange opening for a job. Usually I’m just walking up and down the hallways getting to know people, but during this it’s just made it a lot harder for me.

Q: Tell us about the airport incident. What sort of stamp did that experience put on you?

A: I think it was one of those moments that kind of defined who I was and really what I wanted to do in my career.

I was a law professor [at Nova Southeastern University] when all this happened. It really highlighted to me how important it was to be able to use my role—and the duty I felt that I had in my role—as a professor, and to be able to speak out when other people may not feel they have the tools or the ability to speak out.

So I’ve always kind of kept that as part of who I was. Even as hard as it was to go through some of the subsequent death threats and all those types of things that came at us afterward, it was still important for me to always have that activist angle to my life—to feel like, what am I doing to really make the world better?

Q: You left your position as vice mayor of Oakland Park, Florida, after about a year. Was that a conscious choice to abandon politics for academia?

A: The opportunity was presented to me to run for a state House seat—the Democratic Party approached before I moved. I said no. Because I already knew that I was going to accept this new job in Chicago. Academia has always been what I wanted to do and it’s what I enjoy doing.

Q: But you have remained active in Fight OUT Loud. Does this job give you the latitude to maintain that connection?

A: Yeah, sure. I find that it’s my duty to be able to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves and to speak up on issues of justice and equality.

I think that that’s what law schools do. I think it’s important for my students to see that you can have this type of role. You want to be able to go out there and make the positive change that you can. So I think that the roles are very compatible. I think most people are able to see that.

Because it’s not just speaking on LGBTQ issues, it’s speaking on equality across the board and having the empathy to understand other life experiences. It’s important to listen and argue for that type of equality, equity and inclusion for all the different groups within our community.

Q: Under your leadership, do you think that Mitchell Hamlin will take on some of your activist personality?

A: I think people knew what I was bringing to the table. And I think that there’s a little bit of an expectation that that’s the way it’s going to go.

The very primary thing that I’ve done since I came here is to really figure out how we can advance diversity, equity and inclusion within our school and within the community. And how can we use this school to be able to do that?

That’s really important. That’s going to be core to what we do over the next year, really. To make sure that we are actually advancing those issues. Not just internally, but within the community. So yeah, I think everybody at this school is going to be looking at ways that we can be that voice and have that activist bent in a way—using those tools of law and justice.

Q: This community was close to the tip of the spear when it came to marriage equality. But as the death of George Floyd has revealed, it’s wracked by racial disharmony. Does your school have a role in making things right on that front?

A: Yeah, I think so. I think if law schools aren’t at the center of this, then who is? Especially Mitchell Hamline, which really was born as a school of access and opportunity to bring people in who didn’t have opportunities to be in legal education or become a lawyer before.

So whether it’s through the clinical programs at the school, whether it’s through thought in the way that people look at and help to frame those issues, whether it’s representing people within the community who were part of the protests or the riots, or even helping the businesses that suffered some damage afterward, I think we could be that catalyst for positive change within the community.

That’s really, quite frankly, one of the goals for me over the next year or two. How can we pull our resources together to focus on ways we can make the Twin Cities better within racial relations? Because, obviously, this has been a recurring issue for years now.

Q: What are your plans for the school in terms of equity and diversity?

A: My goal is to increase diversity across the board. But to be able to do that, we have to make sure that we’re providing equity at the school. We want to make sure that we’re giving every student who comes in the door equal opportunities to succeed on the bar exam, in getting a job or just within law school itself.

Our goal is to meet the students where they are and give them the tools to be able to be successful—in how they define success. If we create that type of atmosphere and the ability to do that, then the students will come. Diversity will happen.

But we also have to increase the diversity among the faculty, staff and administration. I’m committed to reaching out to communities that we didn’t normally reach out to—to look for adjunct and full-time professors, and to look for people that are going to be in my senior leadership in administration.

Q: One key piece of your job is developing relationships with law firms. I know these are early days, but how are you approaching that?

A: COVID-19 really makes this a lot more difficult than it normally would be, so we will have to think creatively and differently.

We’re looking to have the people on the board introduce me to people in the community. My Career Services office is setting up people to meet with me. They’re going to probably, at first, be mostly like this [remotely via video link], whereas normally, I’d be going to law firms and sitting down and talking with them. That’s usually the dean’s role in the first year, to go out there and get to know the community.

We’re also in the process right now of looking for a vice president of development and alumni affairs. Alumni are the ones that are really going to be able to connect me to the community.

Q: Perhaps the greatest challenge you face is COVID-19. How are you dealing with that?

A: I was offered the job in February. This job has changed tremendously since the time that I accepted it.

The nice part about being here is the fact that we don’t have financial or admissions pressures, because we’re doing well with admissions at the school. We don’t have to make decisions that might put our students in harm’s way. So the decision-making, to me, is purely about whether or not we’re taking care of the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff.

We have a hybrid-learning program at the school that has grown. Partially, we’ve seen such a big increase this year, because people are saying that, if I am going to have to do something online at a school, I might as well go to the best in the country—and the first do that. So we’ve seen that influx of students in our blended-learning program.

Because we have that support system, the tools and the knowledge to be able to do things online, if we have to go completely online I’d feel good about that. So for me, I’m willing to just focus in on what the health data tell me and what our health officials are telling me when we’re making decisions about what the fall will look like.

Q: How does Mitchell Hamlin want to work with the legal community? And what does it need from the legal community?

A: I think we need to be talking, meeting and working with them. It’s just important that we have a conversation—are we doing what we should be doing for our students to be successful for you, as lawyers within the community?

What they can do is to provide mentorships, internships, externships and jobs for our students. I think that those two go together well.

If we’re listening and responding to what the legal community wants our students to be able to do and then we provide that, people are going to be hiring our students.

Q: Still, major firms are laying off lawyers right now. What do you see as the future of the market?

A: I think none of us will have an idea or understanding of what COVID is going to do to the market at this point. And this is on top of the changes in the legal landscape overall.

Law practice has changed dramatically because of technology. There are different forms of companies that provide legal support—these are not law firms, but they hire contract lawyers and people who do discovery and all these different components and they can do it in a more efficient and cheap way. It’s competing with these big law firms. We’re seeing a lot of that.

There are just so many changes in law practice that we don’t know how it’s going to play out in terms of jobs.

A perfect example is e-discovery. That wasn’t something that was part of what I did when I was a lawyer. I spent most of my time in a warehouse looking at a million documents over a course of a month to figure out what was responsive to discovery. Now, you’ve got AI computer programs that are able to go through that more quickly and identifying the things we have to look at.

That eliminates the need for lawyers. But every time that that happens, it frees lawyers up to do other things as well.

Another example I tell people about is data analytics. Business has taken on data analytics, their whole companies are really driven by the data they see in how they reach out and market their business and their process. Law schools aren’t teaching data analytics to lawyers, but data is going to play a role in how our lawyers are going to practice going forward.

Q: Am I sensing a change in direction here?

A: Yeah, I think that we need to integrate some of these things into our programs, to make sure that the students are prepared to deal with these changes. Our world is just full of data now. You can either be overwhelmed by it or you can use it.

Q: How do you feel about where you’re at right now and how you’re positioned?

A: We moved out to Afton, so this has been a huge change for us. I’ve been with my husband for 18 years and we’ve pretty much always lived in the city. The closest we got to not being really in the city is when we lived down in Fort Lauderdale—which is still a city. But it feels more like a suburb.

Now we live on about two acres of land. We have deer walking up to our door every night. It’s just a different kind of lifestyle; it’s very relaxing and beautiful. When I was in Chicago, we used to come over here and go camping in Minnesota along the St. Croix. So it feels like we’re back to where we feel relaxed and happy.

In the job here, I love this school. I love what it stands for. I love the people that I’ve been able to meet. The students are amazing and inspirational. It just makes me so happy that I’ve had this opportunity. I feel very fortunate.

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