Occasionally in life, God presents a path that requires a leap of faith to travel. The trailhead looks very promising, but the trail farther on is certain to be arduous and long. Those of us on the trail together are going to have to make it up as we go. Yet the vision toward which we travel is life-giving, and the journey will stretch the soul.
After 21 years at William Mitchell College of Law, I had reached a comfort zone, enjoying success in my teaching, scholarship and public service, and holding a chair in regulatory policy. Why leave for a start-up faculty where I had met only the dean, associate dean and librarian?
The reasons for my choice start with the merger talks between William Mitchell and St. Thomas in the 1990s. I strongly supported a merger. I admired St. Thomas’ mission as an entrepreneurial, private, Catholic, urban university that has been highly responsive to student and community needs. At the graduate level, the mission of rigorous practice-oriented education for working students was also the same as William Mitchell’s mission.
Looking toward the future, I saw two major trends that a law school well integrated into St. Thomas could address. As Wisconsin law professor Marc Galanter observes, "An ever-increasing share of the ever-growing legal services ‘pie’ is purchased by businesses and government rather than individuals." Since 1967, the share of legal services bought by individuals has decreased from 60 to 40 percent, while the share purchased by businesses and government has increased from 40 to 60 percent. This trend will continue. To my knowledge, no law school presently focuses on the knowledge and skills necessary to counsel organizational clients — government at all levels, for-profit and nonprofit businesses, and associations and community groups. The other graduate faculties at St. Thomas, particularly the business school — with its strengths in practical management education, entrepreneurship, business ethics and corporate social responsibility — could provide the needed expertise to achieve this.
The second major trend is that clients increasingly look to lawyers to solve problems by working with other professionals in interdisciplinary teams. A law school well integrated into St. Thomas could combine forces with the other disciplines to teach these problem-solving skills.
The William Mitchell-St. Thomas merger did not happen. In deciding ultimately to build a new law school, St. Thomas retained a mission of rigorous education for the practice of law, but shifted away from flexible education for working students to being a Catholic law school, dedicated to integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.
The mission change created a stronger fit with the direction of my teaching, research and faith commitments. Since 1987, I have shifted away from economic regulation and administrative law to focus on the intersection of faith, ethics and professional life in two of the great learned professions, the law and the professorate. The autonomy and traditions of both professions are under assault. Essentially the challenge boils down to the relentless, reductive pressure of the market to define all professional relationships as nothing more than consumer-service provider or employer-employee relationships.
In Habits of the Heart, professor Robert Bellah posits a "tripartite structure" essential to the definition of a profession, namely, the professional, the persons to be served by the professional, and a higher transcendental purpose that informs and guides the relationship between the professional and the persons to be served. Bellah notes that the central transcendental purposes of the original four professions coming out of the medieval period — ministry, law, medicine and the professorate — were in fact sacred purposes to assist others in spiritual growth, justice, health, and the growth of reason to create and disseminate knowledge. The relationship between a professional and the person to be served, or a lawyer and a client, is transformational, not simply transactional. If, in a market economy, a profession does not attend to its transcendental purpose, money will sweep the field as a determiner of value.
My teaching, scholarship and public service are increasingly a secular ministry to defend the transcendental purposes of both professions, and to help the next generation to do better than my generation has done in serving transcendental purposes. The vast majority of my law students turn to a faith tradition to answer the question of what is a good and worthy life. Law school tends to disintegrate them from their religious and spiritual tradition.
I want to help my students find a path in the law where professional life is a reflection of their religious and spiritual tradition. This is the mission of the new law school, one the seminary at St. Thomas can assist in realizing.
Can we turn the mission into reality? I am called to serve this mission. At the same time, there are many unknowns and challenges ahead of a start-up law school. I know there are many in the St. Thomas community who wonder whether the sacrifice necessary to build the new law school is worth it. Yet the St. Thomas culture has been to dream dreams of what could be and to trust in God in the work. Bill Kirchgessner reminded me: "Leap and the net will appear." I feel blessed to walk with you in God’s presence down this path toward these dreams.
A 1970 graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, Neil Hamilton has taught at William Mitchell College of Law since 1980. He joined the St. Thomas School of Law in 2001.