Attorney at Law Magazine Minnesota — Vol 2 No 5
Don Lewis of Hamline University Helping to Shape the Legal Experiences of the Next Generation
It’s not every day when an attorney can take his legal career and alter its course with such a great benefit to those around him. Don Lewis is the dean of the law school at Hamline University and he continues to teach and challenge emerging legal eagles while at the same time reflecting on his own personal experiences to present a very unique viewpoint to those around him.
From Journalism to Law School…and Beyond
“In high school and throughout college, my intent was to become a journalist. I spent three summers working for the Star Tribune and one summer at The Boston Globe. I fully intended to pursue a journalism career and decided at the end of college that I could use a law degree as an added credential,” Don Lewis explained. He also felt that if things didn’t work out as a journalist, he’d have a solid career on which to fall back. “… And the notion of the challenge of attending Harvard Law School really did pique my interest,” stated the attorney.
After graduating from law school, Lewis spent a decade with the US Department of Justice; the first three years at its headquarters in Washington D.C. with the civil rights division. “I did school desegregation work in the South, primarily involving colleges and universities that had originally been organized under the dual system of higher education in Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina. These are states that had separate black colleges and white colleges. I worked on lawsuits that sought to bring those institutions together and to cooperate and share resources,” Lewis said. Additionally, Lewis worked on a case contesting the exclusion of women from the Aggie Band of Texas A&M University.
Later, as an appointed assistant to U.S. Attorney James Rosenbaum, Lewis returned to Minneapolis and prosecuted mostly white collar crimes for six years. He recounts that working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office was his most exciting and rewarding legal work, providing many exceptional trial experiences and opportunities to engage leading defense attorneys. “But, I felt like I wanted to represent “real clients” and so I decided to go into private practice,” said Lewis. He joined the Popham Haik law firm, then one of the top firms in Minneapolis, as a litigation shareholder. He tackled a fair amount of complex civil litigation representing mostly corporate and government clients.
In August 1996, Lewis was part of a group of about 25 lawyers that left Popham Haik to form a new firm: Halleland Lewis Nilan Sipkins and Johnson. Lewis continued to practice mostly in the federal courts, representing major corporate clients like Ford Motor Company, HealthPartners, Travelers and Target. He also represented the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, and in 1999 investigated academic misconduct allegations involving the men’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota.
Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers
Lewis served as president of the Minnesota Minority Lawyers Association in the late 1980s. By 1995, the number of African American lawyers in the state had grown significantly, and the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers was born. “MABL’s goals are to promote and enhance the prospects and influence of lawyers of color in the profession. That can be manifested in a number of ways: being mentors, and providing encouragement, employment opportunities and professional development opportunities for law students,” Lewis explained. The organization offers solid networking opportunities, employment alerts, social opportunities and scholarships. The group also advocates to remove obstacles that impede the progress of attorneys of color that may exist in the legal and business communities. “It provides a platform for black lawyers to be visible to the broader minority community in the Twin Cities,” said Lewis.
In 2007, while he served on the board of trustees of William Mitchell College of Law, Lewis was asked to be a part of its Dean’s Search Committee. It was only shortly thereafter that Lewis received a call from friends at Hamline University asking if he might be interested in the open dean’s position there. “The thought occurred to me that this would be a great leadership position in the legal community. Once I applied, I was all in,” said Lewis who arrived at Hamline in July 2008.
Back to School-A New View
Now as a full-time dean and faculty member at Hamline, Lewis has little time to actively practice at the Nilan Johnson Lewis firm, but remains of counsel. His focus has shift ed to bringing his expertise to those that will become the next generation of lawyers.
Some unique challenges exist. “The legal profession is going through a lot of change driven by the economy, technology and globalization. Corporate clients are getting smarter and more efficient in how they use legal services. I think one result of that is the fact that corporate clients are driving down costs in legal services. That’s forcing the law firms to be more cautious about hiring entry level associates,” Lewis explained. Technology lends its own issues. “Technology has made lawyers much more productive. If lawyers become more productive, perhaps you don’t need as many to complete client projects,” theorized Lewis. “I think law schools need to react to those developments.”
Some may come to the conclusion that perhaps the legal field doesn’t need as many lawyers. Lewis disagrees. “There are so many unmet legal needs; so many people that need lawyers but can’t afford them. I also believe that there is a huge desire for legal knowledge,” Lewis stated. With globalization and increasing regulation, he sees great opportunities for the next generation in a wide-range of business activity beyond the traditional practice of law. “There are a number of people out there who work in a number of professions who need some measure of legal education but don’t necessarily have to go to law school. My view is that law schools (and particularly Hamline has embarked on this path) need to off er other options other than the JD,” Lewis noted. Hamline offers certificate programs in mediation and negotiation. One program in international business negotiation is available via iPad platform. Students enrolled in the program in Hong Kong can negotiate with their classmates on the Hamline campus. It’s a forward-thinking development.
The law school has also recently launched a master’s program with concentrations in conflict resolution and healthcare compliance that can be completed with just 30 credits of study. “My view is that we need to be creative and efficient in educating people who are getting law degrees, but we also need to be much more expansive in offering a legal education to a broader range of people,” Lewis stated.
Mentoring the Next Generation
As both a teacher and dean, Lewis oft en speaks with law students and serves in a mentor role. He has also developed with two other co-teachers a course in “The Business of Lawyering,” which educates students on how to succeed in the private practice of law. “It gets into the “brass tacks” of how you enter, bill and collect time, how to market yourself, how to develop an “elevator speech,” how to understand basic financial models, how to start a solo practice, how to secure financing, how to relate to senior partners and other staff ; all the practical skills on what it takes to survive in practice,” Lewis explained.
Having practice experience, Lewis enjoys lending his advice and experience to up-and-coming lawyers and he loves the chance to share his knowledge. “When you visit with students and they’re describing their professional dreams and you are giving them advice to enable them to achieve their dreams, it makes the exercise that much more worthwhile,” finished Lewis.