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One-Hundred Years of Law
By Elizabeth Stawicki
November 24, 2000
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St Paul native Warren Burger, the 20th-century's longest-tenured U.S. Supreme Court chief justice once said he could not have gone to law school if it wasn't for the night classes at William Mitchell. Burger was among those who took advantage of the law school's friendly stance toward untraditional students. The school is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

William Mitchell in his first law office. he served on the Minnesota Supreme Court from 1881 to 1899. He was respected for his opinions, which were regarded as models of brevity and sound judicial reasoning.
WILLIAM MITCHELL LAW PROFESSOR, former graduate and former dean, Doug Heidenreich, remembers teaching a one-on-one class in the early 1960s. A woman in her late thirties had to make up a class she missed as a result of giving birth to her fifth child.

"We had an individual class and that was always delightful and we would have tea," he recalls."

That student was Rosalie Wahl, who went on to not only start the school's clinical program, but she also paved the way for women to reach the state's highest legal echelon by becoming the first woman to serve on Minnesota's Supreme Court.

"I sat across from him at his desk in the dean's office over a pot of tea and he taught me sales, and if I didn't know the answer, there wasn't anybody who did," says Wahl. "He didn't know I was going to be on the court. He just knew I was a poor woman with a lot of children who needed help."

Since its inception in 1900, Mitchell - then called the St Paul College of Law - has carved out a niche in the often-crowded Twin Cities legal-education market as a school accommodating to working students and part-time professors who taught at night while working as attorneys and judges during the day. As a result, the school took on a reputation as the lawyers' law school; one that graduated students who were well-versed in practical lawyering skills as well as legal theory.

The school, which is really an amalgam of several night law schools that over 50 years merged into one, changed its name to William Mitchell in 1958 to reflect its new home on St Paul's Summit Avenue. Mitchell was regarded as one of the best judges in Minnesota history.

The school's students have left a long trail of legal and political history in its 100 years. Those include former Gov. Floyd B. Olson and William T. Francis, who graduated in 1904.

"He practiced for about 15 years in St. Paul and was an active leader in civil rights and human rights and then named minister and counsel to Liberia. He died there of yellow fever," says Heidenreich.

But the school ran into crisis during the fall of 1983. Eleven women - some staff and students - signed affidavits accusing the dean at the time, Geoff Peters, of sexual harassment. Peters eventually resigned and was disciplined by the state supreme court. But the case bitterly divided faculty for years to come.

Hear former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger's speech at William Mitchell in 1990.
"Men I liked and admired and still do didn't quite get it at that point," recalls Justice Wahl. "I can remember one dear old professor that I really loved said, 'How are men supposed to konw what kind of a touch it is?' I said, 'Well, you know what Oliver Wendall Holmes said about torts: even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and kicked.'"

As Doug Heidenreich writes in his book about Mitchell, With Satisfaction and Honor, the Minnesota Minority Lawyers Association also urged students of color to boycott the school based on staff rancor and perceptions of racism. This all happened around the same time that the school named its new library after its most prominent graduate: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. Burger, a member of the class of 1931 spoke at the dedication on a spring day in 1990.

Mitchell's current dean, Harry Haynsworth, predicts a strong future for the school. He says it won't stray from its identity as an accommodating school to working students but will expand its educational mission.

"You're going to see us doing some legally-based education beyond training people to be lawyers. So that would involve programs for people in other professions like health care providers, law enforcement," says Haynsworth.

Still, the future of William Mitchell is full of challenges. Not only does the school have to compete with the University of Minnesota and Hamline, St. Thomas has now entered the already saturated law-school market.

Elizabeth Stawicki covers legal issues for Minnesota Public Radio. She can be reached via e-mail at