A different way to serve: Q&A with Mike McGinniss, UND School of Law dean

Law dean shares good news about enrollment, bar passage rates

In an interview with UND Today, Mike McGinniss discussed what brought him to UND, the upcoming visit from the North Dakotan Supreme Court and the strengths of UND’s School of Law. Photo by Rob Carolin/School of Law.

Mike McGinniss, who became dean of the UND School of Law in July, took some time to visit with UND Today about his goals for the law school as the school was preparing for this week’s visit from the North Dakota Supreme Court. The Court’s five Justices will hear cases, speak at classes, and offer networking opportunities for students.

UND Today: Good morning! Thank you for visiting with us. You’ve been part of UND Law for nine years as a faculty member. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Mike McGinniss: I joined the faculty at the UND School of Law in 2010 after a career as a lawyer in Delaware. After a judicial clerkship and several years in private law practice, I served for 12 years as a disciplinary counsel for the Delaware Supreme Court.

While I was there, I began teaching as adjunct faculty at Widener University Law School in Delaware. This confirmed my expectation that I would love teaching law, so I pursued the goal of becoming a full-time law professor.

I had a full-day callback interview at UND School of Law and really fell in love with the place, particularly because I saw the priority given here to excellence in teaching. I knew it was a good fit for me. I felt that UND and the state of North Dakota were welcoming and supportive communities where I could thrive professionally and personally.

North Dakota has a small bench and bar, and there are so many opportunities to contribute to supporting the legal community through education and service. My nine years on the faculty have confirmed that my original impression was completely true, and then some!

I am grateful that the Provost selected me as dean and offered me the chance to lead the School of Law, an institution that I deeply care about and am dedicated to serving in pursuit of it enjoying a great future.

The North Dakota Supreme Court is visiting the Law School this week. It’s unusual to have the highest state court travel to a law school to hear cases. Can you talk about UND’s relationship with the Court?

UND School of Law’s excellent relationship with the North Dakota Supreme Court is a matter of great pride and gratitude for us. The Justices’ dedication to UND Law, reflected not only by their fall visits as a group but also by their individual visits and contributions on regular occasions throughout the year, is extraordinary among state supreme courts around the country.

During the fall Court visits such as the one we’re having next week, our students have a special opportunity to see the Justices in action when they hear cases, which is a fantastic experience and occasion for learning.

We’re also excited by the honor of hosting the Court. The justices will hear arguments from our students in the final round of the annual moot court competition, appear as guest speakers in our law classes, and visit with students at lunch and breakfast events and receptions. The combined opportunities for students to observe, meet, and talk with the Justices are truly exceptional, and stand out as a great highlight for the year and one of the distinctions that makes UND School of Law so special.

Can you talk a bit about being a dean compared to being a faculty member?

I like the opportunity that being a dean provides to bring people together, both within the law school and outside, to help us flourish as an academic community. As a faculty member, I loved being in the classroom and teaching students. This is a different way to help students, in terms of providing a strong academic environment for their legal education and preparation for becoming lawyers.

I also have the chance to strengthen the law school as a whole, including by reaching out to alumni to provide support through fundraising and other opportunities, such as adjunct teaching. I love being in a special position to team-build and help us provide a strong educational environment that will help our students be successful both now and in the future.

Law schools across the country have been facing some challenges, especially since the Great Recession, and some have closed or merged. How is UND Law addressing those issues?

We have the extended UND Law family, which provides professional prospects for our students that are hard to find elsewhere, where there are students from multiple schools competing for the same limited number of placements. That’s one of the reasons our relationships with alumni are so important. In our recruiting and marketing efforts, we continue to emphasize the distinctive opportunities we can create for our students. We are the only school in our state, and we are dedicated to helping place students throughout the state and beyond, and to providing greater access to legal services and access to justice in our communities.

Our students have the ability to participate in so many externships because of the support we have from the bench and bar in a variety of fields. I think that’s something that helps us stand out – the fact that so many of our alums are practicing in the state of North Dakota, and are excited about being able to give back by providing opportunities to students.

What are the job prospects for UND Law graduates?

Prospects are looking very good. There is a demand and need for lawyers in our state and region. We’ve successfully placed a high percentage of our students in legal positions, primarily in North Dakota and Minnesota, but also in other states and in Canada. We’re able to help our students find opportunities both in the public and private sector to launch their careers.

Bar passage rates have been an issue, both nationally and at UND. How are you addressing the issue?

We’re very excited by the excellent news in September that 49 members of our class of 2019 passed the North Dakota bar exam on their first attempt, which is a pass rate of 84 percent, and an increase from the 75 percent first-time North Dakota pass rate that we had in July 2018. This reflects the strong collective efforts by our faculty and staff to enhance our graduates’ readiness for the bar exam. We’re very excited to see those results, and we’re dedicated to sustaining and building on that success.

We also had a write-up in the National Law Journal because North Dakota’s bar passage percentage increase stood out among other states around the country, with UND Law graduates leading the way!

UND School of Law

UND School of Law saw a first-year class that was both diverse and a 33 percent increase over the prior year’s entering class. McGinniss values the personal attention given to students, and the culture of caring that surrounds education at the law school. Photo by Richard Larson.

Many law schools have seen declining enrollment. How is UND Law doing?

We welcomed an eager and diverse class of 84 first-year students in our class of 2022, which is a 33 percent increase over our prior year’s entering class. So we’re very pleased about that. They are from 18 states and several Canadian provinces and China. Forty-six percent are North Dakota residents.

It’s very exciting to see that admissions growth, and our recruitment efforts are going to continue to be strong. We’re looking for ways to strengthen the immediate pipeline of students, but we’re also thinking long term and looking at demographics and the overall environment for higher education, both regionally and nationally. We’re already taking steps to enhance our outreach to students in high school and middle school and to encourage them to consider legal education, and in particular, UND Law.

With the talented leadership and strong efforts of our excellent new Director of Admissions, Aleisha Lokken, we’re continuing to work on strategies to make that outreach more expansive and to maximize its effectiveness.

What do you see as UND Law’s strengths?

We have many strengths.  But one that always comes to mind as a special strength of UND Law is our focus on personal attention for students, the fact that we have a culture of caring for them as individuals.

We’re dedicated to providing them a rigorous academic experience and experiential learning opportunities that will help them to hit the ground running when they become lawyers. There are also exciting opportunities for students who don’t want to engage in traditional law practice, who want the legal education in order to enhance their ability to be successful in a number of different fields.

We’re also beginning to provide some online courses, so we’re doing several of our upper level classes online. As we continue to expand that, we hope to tie it with our externship placement program so that students who have an externship that’s far from the law school could continue to take classes online.

So we’re dipping our toes into those waters, and looking to build on that in the future.

This fall, we’re also in the midst of recruiting faculty for three new tenure-track positions to start in Fall 2020. This hiring will help us to both fortify our core curriculum and, we believe, augment it in important ways for our students and our state.

We’re also engaged actively in fundraising with the $250,000 challenge grant that was generously provided by the State Legislature in the last session. It’s a matching grant of $1 in state money for $2 of funds raised through the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

We are focusing the challenge grant fundraising efforts on faculty recruitment and retention in the field of energy law, and on clinical legal education. We want to put the future curriculum in those areas on a strong footing by establishing endowments as robust sources of financial support.

How is UND Law’s future looking?

I’m very confident that the future holds great things for the UND School of Law, especially because our alumni and our bench and bar love UND Law and are committed to helping us succeed, together, in overcoming the challenges we face.

This tremendous dedication was made evident in the amazing efforts the State Bar of North Dakota (SBAND) and its membership made on our behalf during the legislative session that concluded in April. Then-President Zack Pelham, Executive Director Tony Weiler, members of the SBAND Board of Governors such as Dan Traynor, Levi Andrist, and many others were very active and helpful, not only through their own actions in Bismarck, but also by contacting their fellow members of the North Dakota legal profession and calling on them to voice their own enthusiastic support for additional funding for the School of Law.

Special thanks must also go to our new SBAND President, Aubrey Fiebelkorn-Zuger, for all of her efforts to support us throughout the legislative session in so many ways.

We’re very grateful for the enhanced support we received from the State Legislature, which provided a much, much needed boost to us to launch us into a very successful future.  It is already being put to excellent use to help us not only restore and strengthen our core needs, but also innovate and become increasingly competitive in a very challenging and continually changing environment for legal education.

Thank you so much. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I am so happy to report that the UND School of Law is bristling with energy this year. There’s truly a sense of a greater “spring in the step” around the law school. You can see the increased vibrancy and enthusiasm because people are excited about the direction that we’re going, and they’re fully engaged and highly eager to contribute to our team efforts.

Our dedicated faculty and staff have helped bring us through some challenging times, and it’s good to see that excitement and enthusiasm renewed as we move forward, both this year and with the great things that we can accomplish together in the future.