Mitchell Hamline marks 50 years of life-changing clinics for law students

Fifty years ago, a William Mitchell law student appeared at an arraignment in St. Paul Municipal Court on behalf of a Black man who had been arrested after using a restroom at a predominantly white Highland Park church.

“This is a blatant act of discrimination and no crime is committed when somebody is using the restroom,” Jeff Anderson recalled telling Judge Roland Faricy Jr. “The only crime that he committed in the eyes of those who had him arrested was that he was Black.”

Anderson, then 26, had only recently returned to William Mitchell after flunking out a couple years before. He was dubious about the profession and couldn’t stand the study of law. But he joined Mitchell’s law clinic program, putting him in the courtroom.

Faricy looked at Anderson from the bench and told him he’d made a powerful argument. “I, sir, am going to dismiss this case,” the judge said.

Said Anderson: “I knew at that moment in time I had made a difference in that man’s life.”

The law school, now Mitchell Hamline School of Law after merging with Hamline in 2015, is marking the 50th anniversary of its law clinic program, one of the first offered in the United States. It now hosts 17 clinics, covering areas such as child protection, Native American law, immigration law, wrongful conviction and sentencing. Nearly 10,000 students have participated in the clinics since 1973.

“Once they realized how important their help can be, they’d understand more about justice and how it is not evenly distributed,” said Ann Juergens, professor emerita at Mitchell Hamline and former co-director of the law clinics.

Before the program was established, there was little practical training available to law students, Juergens said. The idea was to give them an opportunity to learn more about the disadvantaged while getting hands-on legal experience.

Prof. Roger Haydock said he scratched out a budget and plan for the clinics on a napkin while meeting with law students at O’Gara’s bar in St. Paul. He was named the clinics’ first civil law director and Rosalie Wahl became the first criminal law director — and later the first woman justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Social justice was intended to be a key focus of the clinics — not just community-wide justice, Haydock said, but for individuals as well.

After winning the acquittal of the man arrested for using the restroom, Anderson said, he rushed back to tell Wahl what happened. “Jeff, you know what you have to do,” she told him.

“I then realized my purpose and my passion was to help the dispossessed,” said Anderson, who has represented thousands of individuals who have successfully sued institutions, notably the Catholic Church, over allegations of sexual abuse.

Natalie Netzel, a Mitchell Hamline professor who graduated from the law school in 2015, is co-director of the law clinic program and will become director this summer. She was once a student herself in the child protection clinic.

“That experience set my career trajectory and changed my life,” she said. “I represented parents in the child welfare system. I had my first opportunity to appear in court. It exposed me to systemic injustices that I had not seen up close.”

One of her students is Hannah Burton, 33, who was a social worker for eight years before deciding to go back to school to become a lawyer.

“I was seeing a lot of processes and policies that were not working for families in the child welfare system,” she said. “The main reason I went to Mitchell Hamline was I knew I would get this clinic experience.”

Burton said she has represented families and worked on policy reform in the clinic, testifying last year on a bill to give relatives preference for taking a child who can’t return home before considering someone outside the family.

“The goal is to preserve the relationship of the child to their family and community of origin,” she said. “Keeping families together is critical for the child’s identity development and sense of knowing they belong.”

After graduating next month, Burton will become an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Institute to Transform Child Protection at Mitchell Hamline.

“I had a great experience,” she said of the clinic. “I was able to be the point person on cases with a supervisor supporting me every step of the way. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

A previous version of this story misstated the year that William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University merged their law schools. It was in 2015.