School of Law Dean Dan Kelly.

Dan Kelly: New Law School Dean Is Ready to Listen, Learn and Lead

Dan Kelly, the newly appointed dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, recalls an early memory watching the Minnesota Twins defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series.

“My father and brother are both named ‘Tom Kelly,’” he said. “So, I thought it was cool that legendary Twins’ manager, Tom Kelly, had the same name.”

Law School Dean Dan Kelly on Lawyer magazine cover

Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Kelly never imagined he’d one day live and work in the Twin Cities. However, he always knew a career as an educator was in his future.

“I come from a family of teachers and college professors,” he said.

His father was a history professor for 40 years at Governors State University in Illinois. His mother, an elementary school teacher before Kelly was born, later obtained a doctorate from the University of Chicago and became a professor of education. His brother, Tom, is a philosophy professor at Princeton.

“Whether it was in my DNA since before I was born or a function of seeing the intellectual curiosity of my parents and brother, I think it was in the cards that I would become a professor,” said Kelly, whose appointment as dean begins July 1.

Kelly arrives at St. Thomas during an exciting time, for the law school and the university. The law school remains a national leader in practical training, and its gold standard employment rate has been at or above 90% for the past three graduating classes. In 2023, the School of Law ranked in the top 100 of U.S. News and World Report’s national law school rankings for the first time.

“The St. Thomas community is amazing and has a law school that has enormous potential for growth with a big and bold vision,” he said. “We need to think and dream big in terms of research, education and impact consistent with our mission.”

School of Law Dean Dan Kelly speaking.
Photo credit: University of Notre Dame

Kelly is well situated to help the School of Law realize that vision. He has taught as a professor of law at Notre Dame Law School for the last 15 years, including three years as the Robert and Marion Short Scholar. He is a go-to expert on property law, law and economics and real estate. And his research, which has been published in top-ranked journals, covers a range of topics, from eminent domain and commercial real estate to trusts and fiduciary law.

Kelly is also regarded for his visionary leadership as founding director of Notre Dame’s Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate. While leading the Fitzgerald Institute, he recruited esteemed faculty, launched new courses and an interdisciplinary minor, hosted academic conferences and industry events and helped to raise tens of millions of dollars in endowed funds. He engaged industry and nonprofit partners to elevate awareness of trends in real estate that are crucial to economic and social conditions across the globe.

Dan and Kate Kelly.
School of Law Dean Dan Kelly and his wife, Kate. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

In these roles, Kelly learned some valuable lessons about the importance of listening to and learning from those around him. That has become a large part of Kelly’s leadership style, and it’s one of the reasons he’s had a successful career trajectory.

“While serving as the director of the Fitzgerald Institute, I had an opportunity to work with and learn from some of the top real estate people in the country – world-class investors, developers and lawyers,” Kelly said. “They have taken my interest in property law to a whole new level by introducing me to almost every facet of the real estate industry.”

Ward Fitzgerald and his wife Kathy, who endowed the real estate program at Notre Dame, are among those who were most influential for Kelly. When they talked, he listened. And he learned.

“Ward taught me about having the mindset of an entrepreneur, taking risks and looking for big opportunities, in real estate and life,” Kelly said. “He also taught me the importance of being a leader who is a person of faith – as he would put it, being ‘on fire’ with the Holy Spirit – and that everything we do should be for the greater glory of God.”

While Kelly’s academic passions will remain in real estate, there are other plans at the top of his list when he starts as dean.

“My initial goals are to listen and learn,” he said. “I want to talk with everyone: our students, faculty and staff, our alumni, mentors and employers, our benefactors and supporters. I want to learn from everyone. I want to understand not only our strengths and opportunities but also our weaknesses and challenges.”

Rob Vischer, Tom Mengler and Dan Kelly.
(l-r): Former St. Thomas Law Deans Rob Vischer and Tom Mengler with and incoming dean Dan Kelly. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Kelly pointed out that some law schools seek excellence in scholarship; some emphasize the practical training of their students to defend liberty, pursue justice and advance the common good; a few seek to integrate faith and reason in pursuit of a distinctive mission. But “St. Thomas,” said Kelly, “seeks to do all three, and to do so ambitiously and unapologetically.”

That is what attracted him to the School of Law, he said. “There is no higher calling than to serve a mission-focused, Catholic law school.”

Kelly was raised Catholic. He attended a public elementary school and then Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, where he played varsity basketball and participated on the speech team. He followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended the University of Notre Dame.

“Attending a Catholic high school and college helped me to grow in my faith and understand foundational principles of the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic social teaching,” he said.

Learning was a constant theme instilled in him by his parents. Kelly recalled his childhood days sitting at the dinner table and having a clear view of a whiteboard that hung in the kitchen. The board had vocabulary words, hand-drawn maps of the U.S. and world and other facts and ideas that his parents would discuss with him during meals.

“My parents always emphasized to me the dignity of the human person,” Kelly said. He added that they were active in the Civil Rights Movement and attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the 1963 March on Washington in D.C. They taught him the importance of being principled and courageous, with the biblical phrase “Be not afraid” inscribed on a homemade plaque on his bookshelf. These lessons cemented in him a strong sense of justice and a commitment to pursuing the truth and a more just society.

Kelly is now a husband and father. He and his wife, Kate, whom he met when they were undergraduates at Notre Dame, are raising their five children with these same values, which he hopes will guide his son and four daughters in their own vocations.

School of Law Dean Dan Kelly
Newly named School of Law Dean Dan Kelly starts on July 1, 2024. (Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas)

Kelly’s interest in the law came during his undergraduate days after he took a government course on American constitutional law and audited a law course on the moral, political and legal theory of St. Thomas Aquinas. He went on to obtain a Doctor of Jurisprudence from Harvard Law School, completed a judicial clerkship and became an attorney at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York. Throughout his career, he’s been a research fellow at Yale and Harvard, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Law School and the Louis D. Brandeis Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School.

“My legal mentors, especially Judge Richard Wesley, for whom I clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, the partners and associates with whom I worked at Cravath, and my professors and colleagues, greatly assisted my professional formation and development,” he said.

One of the most important lessons he learned, other than to listen, read and research carefully, is to prepare extensively. “For lawyers, it’s all about preparation, preparation, preparation,” he added. “The best lawyers are the ones who prepare the most, pay closest attention to details and understand the needs of their clients.”

Kelly said he will draw on that advice as he sets the course for St. Thomas Law’s next chapter.

“The founding faculty and leaders of the School of Law, including President Rob Vischer as its former dean, have laid the cornerstone and established a strong foundation from which we can build,” he said. “The question now is where do we want to go next? How do we dream big as a law school and do all of it in a way that advances the common good and promotes the rule of law in our communities, our country and around the globe? How do we continue to offer an innovative curriculum that emphasizes professional formation and achieves top placements for our students; recruit and hire top mission-aligned faculty; and expand and cultivate our network of alumni, employers and benefactors?

“There is a lot of work to do, but together we will create a bold, ambitious vision and determine the objectives and resources we need to realize that vision. The law school’s future is bright, and I look forward to leading this community by listening to and learning from everyone who can help us to accomplish our mission.”

This story is featured in the summer 2024 issue of St. Thomas Lawyer.

Next in St. Thomas Lawyer