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Innovative dean of Hamline School of Law to return to law practice

Creative, big-picture problem-solving was the hallmark of Donald Lewis’ five-year deanship.

Problem-solving — creative, iconoclastic big-picture problem-solving — was the hallmark of Donald Lewis’ five-year deanship at Hamline University School of Law.
Courtesy of Hamline

On Dec. 31, Donald Lewis will step down as dean of the Hamline University School of Law to return to private practice at Nilan Johnson Lewis.

“The Minneapolis law firm that I helped build offers opportunities at this time to close my career doing what I love best: problem-solving for clients,” he said in letters circulated to the law school’s faculty and students last week. “For very personal and professional reasons, I am now ready to return to law practice with a new perspective and fresh skills honed during my service as dean.”

The move is noteworthy in part because problem-solving — creative, iconoclastic big-picture problem-solving — was the hallmark of Lewis’ five-year deanship. One likely result: smoother sailing for his successor, who will helm a different kind of law school.

With the bloom off the rose in terms of a law degree being a one-way ticket to the good life, for most law schools the last five years have been painful indeed. Job prospects and salaries are down, as are applications to all but the most selective schools.

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While lots of programs responded by trying to claw their way to higher rankings, Lewis took careful stock of what wasn’t down. Demand for lawyers might not bounce all the way back, he realized, but the need for legal education was growing.  

Happily, Hamline’s pockets of expertise dovetailed with industries in which demand for specialized legal training short of a JD was booming, such as health-care law. Demand for workers who have skills in regulatory compliance is growing, but those employees don’t necessarily need to invest three years and six figures in a full-fledged law degree.

A year ago, Lewis announced the creation of a number of non-JD programs, including a master’s degree, as well as several groundbreaking digital platforms. The classes are full, applications are up and National Jurist magazine named Hamline one of the 20 “most innovative” law schools in the United States.

A little more background from the Hamline news release announcing the change:  

“Lewis’ law career spans 35 years. He was born in Saint Paul and raised in its Rondo neighborhood. After receiving degrees from Northwestern University and Harvard Law School, he began his legal career with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., handling desegregation cases involving white and black state colleges in the South.

“He returned to Minnesota in 1982 as an appointed assistant to then-U.S. Attorney James Rosenbaum, prosecuting white-collar crimes. … He eventually helped start the firm now known as Nilan Johnson Lewis, focusing his practice on employment litigation, health care law and white-collar criminal defense.

“Much of his work has involved federal-level and/or high profile cases, including the 1999 academic fraud investigation of the University of Minnesota’s men’s basketball team. Most recently, he was selected by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to lead an internal investigation into the May 22 Lilydale Regional Park landslide.”