It has been 10 years since the University of St. Thomas School of Law first opened its doors, and its accomplishments since that time are too numerous to list here. Perhaps its most significant accomplishment is that the School of Law is doing exactly what it set out to do: Cultivating a different law school environment that, in turn, produces a different kind of lawyer. This “different kind of lawyer” is a lawyer who not only practices law at a high level of intellectualism and professionalism, but is ethical, socially conscious, and who refuses to divorce morality from the practice of law. In other words, a lawyer who lives the St. Thomas mission.
That the School of Law has accomplished, in just 10 short years, its goal of producing different lawyers begs the questions: What is St. Thomas doing that cultivates this different type of lawyer? and, Where does the school of law go from here?
I met with students, faculty and alumni, to answer these two questions.
It’s About Community
In speaking with current students, one thing is resoundingly clear – they love their law school. Without hesitation, these students attribute their happiness and fulfillment to the sense of community present at the School of Law.
For rising 2L Roger Maldonado, the sense of community at the School of Law has particular significance. Maldonado began his first year at St. Thomas in the fall of 2008, but was deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard just after completing the first semester. While serving for one year as a convoy commander for an escort security unit, Maldonado was overcome with a desire to return to St. Thomas. At the same time, he was uneasy about returning since he would be two semesters behind his former classmates. Upon returning for the spring 2011 semester, Maldonado was welcomed by students and faculty “with open arms,” he said, and the transition was seamless. The sense of community was overwhelming, confirming for him that this is, indeed, where God is calling him to be.
The relationship between students and faculty is one of the defining characteristics of the School of Law’s community. St. Thomas Legal Writing professor Julie Oseid recalled that during her three years of law school at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1980s, she spoke with a professor outside the classroom on just one occasion. “A professor who was the head of the Federal Clerkship Committee called me into his office because he heard I had accepted a clerkship with Judge John T. Noonan Jr. of the 9th Circuit, and asked whether I was sure I wanted to accept the clerkship,” Oseid recalled with a laugh.
Oseid’s experience contrasts starkly with that of St. Thomas students. For Amelia Selvig, rising 3L and newlyelected student body president, getting to know the staff and faculty personally has been a defining part of her law school experience. At first, Selvig was baffled that her professors took an interest in her outside the classroom, but she quickly learned that this was the norm at St. Thomas. Now, Selvig’s “personal hero,” Tom Holloran of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, has become an informal mentor to her.
Rising 2L Dina Nguyen has a similar story. She said that because the St. Thomas faculty know who she is, her law school experience is enriched. Her Civil Procedure professor, Gregory Sisk, took each student from the class to lunch or coffee. Nguyen noted that having her professors take an interest in her as a person, makes her “more passionate about the topics they are teaching.”
The sense of community is evident to prospective students when they visit campus. Maldonado was accepted to two other local law schools and St. Thomas, but chose St. Thomas because he sensed that people were “genuinely happy.” Moreover, he could sense that this is a community grounded in faith – a place where religion is not just talked about in theory, but lived day in and day out.
Nguyen had a similar experience. She applied to approximately 50 law schools, and was accepted or waitlisted at each one. It took one visit to the St. Thomas School of Law for her to make up her mind.
Selvig, Nguyen and Maldonado are not alone in their perceptions. A survey provided to the class of 2013 reveals that 80 to 85 percent of first-year students at St. Thomas say they were drawn to the law school because they perceived it as having a “great community.” They were not disappointed.
A ‘Different Kind of Lawyer’
Students point to the School of Law’s unique community as responsible for cultivating that “different kind of lawyer” the law school set out to create. What is more difficult for students to articulate, however, is what motivates the faculty, staff, students and alumni to maintain the close-knit community that has now become the School of Law’s trademark.
Thomas Mengler, dean and Ryan Chair in Law, believes that the nature of the community at St. Thomas is simply a byproduct of the most important part of the School of Law’s mission – the part that challenges students to ask themselves: What do I want for my life? and, What kind of lawyer do I want to be? These questions are posed to students initially in orientation, repeated throughout their courses and emphasized through the mentor program and other programs outside the classroom.
“The mission challenges faculty, staff and students to ask themselves, ‘Why are we on this earth?’” Mengler said. “And a desire for service and community is the natural outgrowth of addressing that question.”
This pivotal aspect of the School of Law’s mission also explains the unique relationship between faculty and students. According to Mengler: “The commitment of faculty members to not only the intellectual development of students, but also the personal and spiritual development, is a natural outgrowth of the mission. The faculty members at St. Thomas are drawn to the School of Law because they want to take part in helping students in their personal, as well as professional, formation.”
The experience at St. Thomas is more than just academic. Oseid looks back at her own law school experience with great respect for her alma mater. She said that she had exceptional training in legal analysis and critical thinking, and overall, “a great legal education.” Yet, when she heard about St. Thomas’ School of Law, she was “fascinated by this mission and faith part of professional life,” she said. In a way, she “felt jealous of others having this opportunity that was so different from the traditional education.” She believes St. Thomas parallels her alma mater in terms of exceptional legal training, but provides “an extra layer” that is missing from other legal institutions the mission.
The “extra layer” also is present in the classes offered at the School of Law. The Ethical Leadership courses offered by the Holloran Center squarely address those formative questions Mengler identified – What kind of person do I want to be? and, What kind of lawyer do I want to be?
Selvig said that the single most defining event in her law school experience was her participation in Neil Hamilton and Tom Holloran’s Ethical Leadership in Corporate and Business Law class. She said the class “changed the way I think about my legal career.” As a class assignment, she wrote her eulogy to look at how she wanted to be remembered. What she discovered about herself surprised her: “Being an attorney never came up in my eulogy. Instead, I realized that I want to be remembered, most of all, for who I am outside of my professional goals and aspirations.”
Students at the School of Law are encouraged to live the mission by taking advantage of leadership and service opportunities. For example, Selvig is on the executive board of the American Constitution and Business and Corporate Law Societies. Through these activities, she believes she is “already developing social consciousness by leading organizations and participating in service events.”
The Mentor Externship Program also challenges students to ask themselves formative questions. They are given the opportunity to observe lawyers and judges in practice and reflect on what type of lawyer they want to be.
Mission round-table lunches and programming such as the faith retreats led by Professor Susan Stabile also focus on the formation of the “full person.” At these events, faculty, staff and students discuss issues related to the School of Law’s mission. Oseid remarked that in the greater society, “people are losing opportunities for generations to mix. Here, you cannot isolate yourself from it.”
The Culture Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy
The culture of the School of Law is what Mengler refers to as a “selffulfilling prophesy.” The individuals who founded the School of Law “came with a spirit,” and were intentional about making personal formation a core aspect of the curriculum and culture. Ten years in, the culture of the law school is well-established, and in many ways, less deliberate. As students graduate and new students fill the classrooms and hallways, somehow, the culture of community continues effortlessly.
In just 10 years, community and personal formation are clearly a part of the St. Thomas culture. In reflecting on how it happened, Mengler recalled the famous line from “Field of Dreams” – “If you build it, they will come.” The Law School, through its mission, attracts students, faculty and staff who sincerely want to live the mission and who are committed to the development of ethical, moral, socially conscious lawyers.
For example, Professor Mark Osler, who joined the School of Law a year ago, was drawn to the school because of its mission, which “expressly included social justice,” he said. When Osler came to St. Thomas to interview for a position, he was asked about the mission. He responded: “I’ve been living out your mission for years, without knowing it was the mission of your law school.”
Oseid believes the culture continues because of the expectations set by Mengler and other leaders at the School of Law. “You can give people incentives to behave a certain way,” she explained, “or you can create a culture where certain behavior is expected. Here, we do the latter.” She also noted that although the culture and community continue seemingly without effort, the mission is still very much a regular topic of discussion at the law school.
How the Legal Community Perceives St. Thomas’ ‘Different Kind of Lawyers’
Ten years ago, students in the first classes took a gamble on a new, notyet- accredited law school not knowing how the School of Law would be perceived by the larger legal community. Indeed, judges, lawyers and educators outside the St. Thomas community looked at the new law school with interest, curiosity and perhaps even skepticism.
The risk paid off. The now-accredited law school has exceeded expectations. Not only has the skepticism dissipated, but current law students feel that they have an advantage when interviewing for jobs. Maldonado said, “Because the law school has done so well in such a short time … employers know that the law school is doing something right.” He also gives kudos to St. Thomas alumni, explaining that because the alumni have proven – through exceptional lawyering – that the law school is producing outstanding lawyers, he has the advantage of the “St. Thomas reputation” in interviews.
Selvig recognizes that St. Thomas’ reputation is attributable to alumni who have paved the way for current students, but also credits the location of the law school. Being downtown makes the law school visible and accessible to judges and practicing attorneys. In addition, the mentor program has given the law school unique exposure to judges and lawyers in the larger legal community.
One explanation for why St. Thomas students and alumni remain competitive in the job market is that the “different kind of lawyer” produced by the School of Law has the skills and qualities employers want. Mengler said that the questions posed to students throughout their education at St. Thomas prepare them for practicing law. The qualities embodied in the School of Law’s mission statement are attributes of successful lawyers. These qualities include: listening, professionalism, putting the client first and high ethical aspirations. In addition, the key to developing a legal practice is knowing how to cultivate relationships and friendships – a skill at which St. Thomas students are well-versed.
Finally, Osler believes that students at St. Thomas are desirable to em - ployers, in part, because they are learning, through example, that there is a time and place to take a view on what is right and what is wrong. “We’re living in a world that cries out for that,” Osler said.
A Vision for the Future
Although students, faculty, staff and alumni are celebrating the success of the School of Law after 10 years, the celebration does not come without reflection on where St. Thomas goes from here.
So, what does the vision of the School of Law’s future look like?
Career and Professional Development: The job market continues to be a challenge for all graduating law students. The vision for the future, therefore, includes enhancement of the school’s Office of Career and Professional Development, including increasing connections between the department and potential employers.
Kendra Brodin was hired in June as the director of Career and Professional Development. “Kendra’s experiences make her keenly aware of the skills new lawyers need to successfully transition from student to attorney as well as what employers are looking for from the attorneys they hire,” said Assistant Dean of Students Dave Bateson. “She has strong local and national networks that will benefit our students.”
Curriculum: The vision for the future also includes innovations with respect to the curriculum. Mengler promised to “enhance the experiential learning, including incorporating more skillsbased courses into the curriculum.”
Oseid chaired a 10-year review of the School of Law’s curriculum, which analyzed how legal education should adapt to the changing legal profession. Every change, however, “must be made with the student in mind,” Oseid said. Along the same lines, one goal Mengler identified is to make law school education “more meaningful for students” and to “increase the value students get from St. Thomas’ professional classes.” National Presence: The vision for the future also includes a place for the School of Law on the list of the nation’s top 50 to 75 law schools. Oseid said, “Our reputation has not had time to catch up with our achievements.” Likewise, Mengler said that although we know St. Thomas is in that category, the challenge is to persuade others of the same. Osler believes this can best be accomplished by “letting our colleagues in other schools see what we have.”
When confronted with the evidence, it is resoundingly clear that, as Mengler said, “The University of St. Thomas School of Law is delivering on the promise that we are doing something different.”
And it sure seems to be working well.
Author: Pam Abbate-Dattilo is anassociate in Fredrickson & Byron’sEmployment and Labor Law Group.
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