William Mitchell College of Law, left, and Hamline University School of Law, right.
William Mitchell College of Law, left, and Hamline University School of Law, right. (Courtesy photos)

Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law announced Friday that they would merge, in what appears a survival bid for two St. Paul institutions that have seen sharp enrollment declines.

The proposed merger is the first evidence that at least some law schools have hit the point where they are no longer financially viable—even as the closures predicted since at least 2012 have yet to materialize.

“It’s certainly a strategy to respond to the changes in the market,” said Kate Kruse (left), associate dean of experiential education and curriculum at Hamline. “But we want to make the change while we are both still strong. It’s the right move at the right time.”

According to data released by the American Bar Association, Hamline’s first-year class fell to 94 students last fall, compared with 202 in 2011—a more than 54 percent decrease. The school’s full-time faculty has dwindled from 35 four years ago to about 16 today.

The picture hasn’t been much better for William Mitchell, which saw new student enrollment fall to 169 this fall from 307 in 2011, a nearly 45 percent decline. Full-time faculty has declined from about 37 to 26.

Official statements from the two law schools offered scant explanation for the merger, beyond a claim that the combination would make for a stronger institution overall.

Outgoing William Mitchell president and dean Eric Janus (left) told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Minnesota had been hit harder than other states by the decline in prospective law students.

“This is a bold move at a time when students and the legal profession are calling on law schools to do things differently,” Janus said in a prepared statement. “It will leverage the best of two outstanding institutions to create a stronger law school with the ability to put a greater focus on helping students prepare for the new realities of the profession, which is increasingly competitive, specialized and technology-based.”

Hamline Law dean Jean Holloway said the merged institution—called the Mitchell|Hamline School of Law—would be a “unified and vibrant” blend of the two. She told the Pioneer Press that she would assist with the merger but was unsure of her next move after that. The merged law school will be run by Mark Gordon, now president of Ohio’s Defiance College. He was hired last month to replace Janus at William Mitchell.

Students reacted to the announcement with surprise and hope for what a combined law school would mean, student leaders said.

“We’re all dealing with the shock and apprehension that comes with a major change, but we’re training to be lawyers and to roll with the punches,” said Alex Beeby, president of Hamline’s Student Bar Association. “We at Hamline have a lot of pride in our school, and we’re wondering what the future will look like.”

Similarly, William Mitchell students were caught off guard, said Jordan Humphrey, president of that school’s Student Bar Association. Even though a merger has been discussed for about 15 years, the timing was a surprise.

“The students I’ve encountered so far have been fairly positive,” Humphrey said. “They see the advantages of combining. But we’re all very proud of the school we attend, so there are also some concerns.”

Students will benefit from a larger alumni network, he said. Moreover, Hamline students will benefit from William Mitchell’s strong clinical program, and William Mitchell students from Hamline’s standout alternative dispute resolution and health law program, Humphrey added.

Kruse said that the faculties of both schools have known about the proposed merger since early January, when the schools reached an agreement in principal.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I think both William Mitchell and Hamline have overlapping strengths and a shared vision of what legal education should be. Both places focus on offering a practical legal education and both think a legal education should be accessible to a wide range of people.”

Kruse said she anticipates a modest reduction in the size of the combined faculty, likely through retirement incentives rather than layoffs.

The consolidation makes sense, given that the schools are in the same city, with similar student profiles in a relatively small legal market, said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who has written extensively about the economic challenges in legal education. He recalled rumors of such a merger circulating several years ago.

“It was easier to accomplish because William Mitchell is a stand-alone law school that could decide its fate without the complications of a parent university,” Tamanaha said. “This unique set of circumstances contributed to their consolidation. Most other law schools will not have the same option.”

Available details about how the merged institution would operate were scarce, but officials confirmed that most law classes would be held on William Mitchell’s campus. The two schools are about three miles apart.

The proposed merger requires the blessing of the ABA, but leaders hoped the deal would go through over the summer. Faculty from both schools are working on an integration plan, Kruse said.

Beeby said that Hamline students were meeting with law school leaders to get more information, but that the school had already provided some answers to some questions. For instance, they assured students that they would retain their scholarships.

Tamanaha said he expects to see additional law school consolidations and closures as enrollments and budgets shrink.

“The crisis in legal education is still in the early stages of playing out,” he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.