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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM MINNEAPOLIS

Moral Compass Guides New Law School

Education: Graduates will be expected to make a difference. Critics wonder whether they'll be too nice to succeed.

February 24, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — They have just founded a law school, but the deans and professors at the University of St. Thomas insist that the last thing this country needs is more lawyers.

Or rather, the last thing this country needs is more sleazy, win-at-all-costs lawyers. More tough-talking, grind-out-200-billable-hours-a-week lawyers. More lawyers who work, as Associate Dean Patrick Schiltz put it, "toward no end other than getting rich and determining whether one huge insurance company will have to write out a check to another huge insurance company."

The University of St. Thomas School of Law is aiming to produce a different kind of lawyer. A lawyer who will make not just money but a difference.

"It's about what kind of society we want. . . . We can choose whether we want to live in a slime pit," said the Rev. D. Reginald Witt, one of the first law professors hired by the school.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Law school--A story in Section A on Sunday about a new law school at the University of St. Thomas incorrectly identified the location of Hamline University. It is in St. Paul, Minn.

Added Schiltz: "There will always be a segment of people buying legal services who will want the meanest [attorney] they can find. If our students are attractive to them, we will have failed."

All law schools teach ethics. But St. Thomas is one of the few to claim moral instruction as its very reason for being.

That position has drawn fire from some critics as arrogant, impractical or redundant. Skeptics worry that a relentless focus on morality may produce lawyers who are too nice for the no-holds-barred advocacy our legal system requires. Others resent the implication that law schools mostly turn out the self-absorbed and underhanded.

St. Thomas' mission, they point out, is hardly unique: Most of the two dozen other law schools affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church claim a similar focus on personal ethics and social justice, although without all the posturing. So do some secular schools and some affiliated with other religions.

"I resist the notion that it's a novel idea," said Ed Butterfoss, dean of Hamline University in Minneapolis, which has a tradition of turning out advocates for the poor.

But St. Thomas administrators insist their program will stand out because of its curriculum.

It is one of the few law schools in the nation to mandate community service--at least 50 hours by graduation. The school also is committed to creating public service jobs for several graduates each year in areas such as helping indigent immigrants.

Another signature program requires students to meet with practicing attorneys several times each semester. These mentors send the students to watch real legal battles--a trial, a mediation, a deposition--and then engage them in discussions about ethics in the fray.

Other schools sponsor optional seminars on moral issues in addition to their mandatory classes on ethics. At St. Thomas, professors boast that such discussions will be integrated into every class, so every student will get a full dose. Polls show that less than 20% of Americans think lawyers have high ethical standards. St. Thomas aims to overcome that distaste.

The school is run by the University of St. Thomas, one of the oldest and largest private colleges in Minnesota. St. Thomas had a law program in the 1920s but shut it down during the Great Depression. Ever since, the administration has been eager to try again. In the late 1990s, it began fund-raising.

So far, the law school has raised more than $75 million, including a major donation from Richard Schulze, the founder of Best Buy Corp. Its endowment is already triple the median for U.S. law schools--plus it has $32 million on hand to construct a campus. It just hired as its dean Thomas Mengler, who helped make the University of Illinois law school one of the top 25 in the country.

The 115 students who enrolled in September range from recent college graduates to 45-year-olds launching third careers. Most are Catholic. About half are on full scholarships, with annual tuition set at $21,200.

All know what St. Thomas expects from them: "They want us to go out and make the community better," said Nicole Zwieg, 22.

"Most people who have run-ins with lawyers have miserable experiences. I want them to leave a consultation feeling good," added 30-year-old Saran Jenkins, who quit a teaching job to try law.

Now in their second semester, the students are working through a curriculum that uses the same backbreaking case books as other law schools--but throws in as supplements excerpts from a Hindu spiritual text or a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The idea is not to dictate that every Catholic lawyer must work to abolish the death penalty or end abortion. Rather, the goal is to have students think about the law through the prism of their consciences. Professors hope the exercise will inspire students to use their legal skills as a tool for social change, to try to close the gap between what is legal and what is just.

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