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Rosalie Wahl oversaw transformative changes in legal education

She cared about the law, but Rosalie Wahl cared even more about justice. She valued goodness as well as intelligence, a lawyer’s heart as much as her head.

wahl photo
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Justice Rosalie Wahl

My office happens to be in the place we call the Rosalie Wahl Legal Practice Center. Every day I walk past her portrait, she in judge’s robe wryly looking over activity in the foyer. Under her watchful eyes, law students at William Mitchell College of Law come and go, learning to represent clients, to exercise good judgment, to solve problems, and — just as important to Justice Wahl, who died yesterday — discovering that our legal system still has much work to do before it will reach the goal of equal justice for all.  Amid her gentle spirit I teach, and future attorneys learn, the law and its application, in Rosalie’s words, “From the bottom up, holding the same short end of the stick the person without resources in our society holds.”

Legal education today is under fire. It is accused of being divorced from the realities of practice and the job market, or of fleecing students of their loan money while leading them to a profession that will not provide them a job.  Yet even today’s skeptics concede that legal education must focus on graduating students who know something of practice, of how to reason and exercise judgment as a lawyer. Rosalie Wahl would add that they should know something, too, about justice — or its failings — and take responsibility for it. 

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Tributes today are rightly singing of Rosalie’s many accomplishments as a jurist. She initiated and chaired task forces that examined the court’s gender fairness, and racial bias in the judicial system. Her 549 judicial opinions are known for their elegant clarity, for her sensitivity to the minds and souls of people seeking justice, for her close attention to the Legislature’s intent, and insistence that the Minnesota courts define state constitutional standards independent of federal standards.

But a lesser known aspect of her legacy was her role in overseeing transformative changes in legal education. She helped cement professional legal values and real experiences into the legal curriculum, here in Minnesota and across the nation. Wahl was among those who pioneered the job of clinical law teacher at William Mitchell in the early ’70s. 

Coached students as they represented clients

Hers was not the standard Socratic method, in which, as the movies show us, detached law professors confront nervous students to answer questions in front of their peers in the classroom. The clinical method that Rosalie embraced is to coach students in their learning as they represent clients in often urgent matters. Since Wahl’s time as a clinical teacher, methods of learning from experience have moved from the edges to the heart of legal education. Indeed, today many of the nation’s law schools routinely tout their clinics to prospective students on their websites.

Ann Juergens

Wahl skillfully guided changes in regulations governing legal education during the years that she chaired the American Bar Association’s committee that oversees admission to the bar. She brought real culture change to legal education. As a result of her work with others, today every law school must offer its students instruction in professional skills (in addition to legal analysis and research and writing), and must reflect upon how it is preparing its students “to participate effectively in the profession.” In most schools the professional values of fairness, justice and self-development are now taught alongside the skills of the profession.  

At William Mitchell and elsewhere, traditional courses have become infused with exercises in ethical judgment and skills, and with real-world framing from the first to the last weeks of law school. Experiential education may be done with real clients or in simulations or observation of others. It is often collaborative with practitioners and judges and with the multiple communities it serves. All of these changes owe credit to Wahl’s steady and persuasive hand at the tiller of legal education, to, among other things, the rules she proposed that were adopted, and to an ABA commission that she led after stepping down as chair of the accrediting body.

Valued goodness as well as intelligence

One of the last times I heard Rosalie speak publicly was in March 2003. It came at a reunion of the William Mitchell clinic directors who worked with her, or who followed in her footsteps. Before beginning on the legal education topic of the day, she took a moment to point out with fierce sadness that the U.S. government had begun bombing Iraq that morning. It was a most moving moment. She cared about the law, but Rosalie Wahl cared even more about justice. Her voice and call valued goodness as well as intelligence, a lawyer’s heart as much as her head.

Yes, Rosalie Wahl was a profoundly effective Supreme Court justice. She was a truly historic Minnesota figure. But, to me, walking past her portrait every day, I will remember Rosalie Wahl as a teacher, a very good teacher.

Ann Juergens is a professor and Co-Director of Clinics at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. She is the author of “Rosalie Wahl’s Vision for Legal Education: Clinics at the Heart.”


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