A Trail Blazer in Legal Education

"It's about the mission," says law dean Thomas Mengler

The St. Thomas School of Law opened in August 2001 with 120 students. Thomas Mengler will now lead the law school into the future. He calls the students, and the faculty who teach them, trail blazers. “We were all drawn to St. Thomas by the same excitement and energy, and the same sense of the unique and distinctive mission,” he said. “Law, at its best, changes society for the better. Our students and faculty are infused with that energy. They want to use their years here to effect positive change.”

Mengler left a familiar, well-established and high-ranking University of Illinois College of Law (Champaign-Urbana) to become dean of the newly established University of St. Thomas School of Law. Why?

“It’s the mission,” Mengler said. “It’s a great opportunity to work at a law school that has a distinct, faith-based mission and one that carries out the highest values of the profession, provides service to the community and is committed to excellence in teaching and research.”

The faith-based component to the law school will mean different things to different people, Mengler says. “I have used the word ‘holistic,’ others use ‘formation of the individual’ or ‘integration’ of ones personal and professional self. We are a school that will integrate the students’ faith (whatever that might be), ethics, professionalism and legal skills throughout the curriculum. In doing this, we will graduate the most effective lawyers.”

An Illinois native, Mengler graduated magna cum laude from Carleton College in Northfield in 1975. He received his master’s in philosophy in 1977 and his juris doctorate in 1981, both at the University of Texas.

Before joining the law faculty at the University of Illinois in 1985, Mengler served as a law clerk to Judge James Logan of the U. S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, practiced with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Arnold and Porter, and was an assistant state attorney general in Texas.

Mengler had been the University of Illinois College of Law dean since 1993 and a member of its faculty since 1985. The college has been ranked consistently among the top 25 law schools in the country and the top 10 public law schools, and this year is ranked 23rd nationally by U.S. News and World Report.

A prestigious career at the University of Illinois included establishing a focus on intellectual property law and initiating an interdisciplinary academic journal on law and technology. He formed partnerships with Oxford University and the University of Victoria, British Columbia, to offer an international intellectual property summer school for law students and lawyers.

During Mengler’s years as dean, the college added 14 endowed faculty chairs, increased the number of tenure-track faculty from 27 to 37 and improved the student-faculty ratio from 24:1 to 16:1. U.S. News also rates the college as the third most diverse law school in the Midwest.

The St. Thomas School of Law has a few special features which Mengler said were very exciting; including a required public service component, a mentorship program and establishing joint degrees with UST graduate schools.

“Our public service requirement flows out of our mission. Our mission focuses on social justice and giving back to the community. Studies show that law students who engage in service projects while in law school are more inclined to engage in public service after graduation,” he said. Although the strength of this commitment will attract students more likely to pursue public interest careers, it is intended that all students, whether they are prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, or in private law firms or corporations, will donate time back to their communities.

The mentor program is about building strong professionals by introducing students to leaders of the legal community. “The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is filled with outstanding lawyers who have that public service spirit. Our mentors demonstrate a high level of commitment to community and the highest level of integrity,” Mengler said. Students are paired with legal professionals from the beginning of their legal education.

“Joint degree programs are critical to the excellence of this law school,” Mengler explained. There is already an established joint degree program with Catholic Studies, and Mengler hopes that by the end of the year, there will be more, including business, education and social work. “Law is about society and our students need to look beyond the legal perspective only. A joint degree can prepare them for more career opportunities.”

Mengler eagerly awaits the opening of the new law school building in spring 2003. “This will be a state-of-the art facility, packed with technology, which is vital to any educational program and the legal profession,” he said. Because of its location, the building will truly be a legal center for Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“A wonderful feature of the law building is the chapel,” Mengler adds. “It emphasizes our commitment to being a faith-based law school at a Catholic university. It will provide a much-needed place for all Minneapolis campus students, faculty and staff to draw on their spiritual lives.“

When asked what he did for fun, Mengler laughed. “There is no balance in my life,” he said. “I work a lot.” In reality, Mengler has a strong commitment to his family. Married for 16 years to Mona Cuenod Mengler, they have four very busy children: Nathan, soon to be 15; Madeleine, 13; Michael, 11; and Patrick, 9. “When not working, I spend time with my family. We make a commitment to eat dinner together – a challenge with our schedule and the children’s activities.” Mengler also likes to read good books and watch bad movies. He slyly admits to being “a pretty darned good racquetball player.”

Mengler comes to the St. Thomas School of Law well prepared. His vision, energy and enthusiasm are unquestionable. “Having an opportunity to build a law school from the ground up that will have lasting importance and value is deeply attractive to me,” he said. This dean is ready to meet the challenges of building a faith-based, nationally recognized law school. As he said at the beginning of the interview, “It’s about the mission.”