Top Law Schools Interview with Walter F. Mondale

Walter F. Mondale

Published September 2010, last updated October 2010

Walter F. Mondale (University of Minnesota Law School ’56), the 42nd Vice President of the United States, served under Jimmy Carter from 1976-1980. Prior to his years in the White House, Mondale served twelve years as the U.S. Senator from Minnesota and four years as Minnesota Attorney General. During the Clinton presidency, he spent three years as Ambassador to Japan. Mr. Mondale practices law at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis.

Top Law Schools: Vice President Mondale, thank you for taking the time to speak with us this morning.

Walter Mondale: I’m happy to do it.

TLS: You graduated from Minnesota Law in ’56, correct?

WM: I did, and I loved it. It set me up for a long, exciting life in public service and also, from time to time, in the practice of law. It was really an invaluable part of my life.

TLS: Before finishing college in 1950, you had already become involved in state politics.

WM: Yes well, Hubert Humphrey was coming up then, and my first campaign was helping Hubert in his mayoral race here in Minneapolis. And then I helped him in his 1948 win for the U.S. Senate. I’ve been active in politics ever since.

TLS: So when you made the choice to go to law school, was it specifically informed by your interest in public service? Did you go to law school with the ultimate goal of using your degree in that realm?

WM: Well, it was related in that way, but also in another way as well. I had been around politics for quite a while, and I wanted to get into some kind of profession which would allow me to be more independent in politics than I was afraid I would become if I were a full-time staff person. I figured that, by going to law school and becoming a lawyer, I would not only be providing myself with skills and knowledge that I could use in public life, but that I would also be able to pursue a different life if politics didn’t work out. All of that was in my mind at the time.

Walter F. MondaleTLS: So when you graduated from Minnesota undergraduate, had you already determined that law school was your next step?

WM: I would say that I was close to it. But first, I volunteered to be drafted… I was in the service for two years and then had the idea to get the G.I. bill so that I could afford to go to law school. And that worked out very well.

TLS: What role, if any, did your legal education play in the evolution of your political principles?

WM: I think it had a lot of impact and I think it was crucial to what I did in my public career. I had a strong interest in the Constitution, in due process, in checks and balances, and the role of civil liberties in a healthy public process. And if you look at my career as Attorney General here in Minnesota – where I took Gideon’s side in the famous Gideon case – and as my years in the Senate and the White House, I was always trying to strengthen that part of American life that guaranteed that the process would be open and unintimidating. I had a long history of working on such issues and a lot of that was piqued by my law school education.

TLS: When did you clerk for [Minnesota Supreme Court Justice] Thomas F. Gallagher?

WM: I clerked for Judge Gallagher during my senior year at law school. Then I went with a good law firm here in Minneapolis, where I worked for about two years before another friend of mine – Harry McLaughlin – and I went out on our own and started a practice. I then became the Attorney General of Minnesota and he went on to become a state judge and eventually a federal judge; we broke up [the firm] amicably.

TLS: After leaving private practice for the attorney general position, how long were you in public service before returning to the private realm?

WM: Well I was attorney for about four years, I was a Senator for about 14 years, and then I was Vice-President for four, and then I went back to private practice in ’81.

TLS: Have you been with Dorsey & Whitney for most of that time?

WM: For a brief period, I was with Winston & Strawn, a Chicago-based firm run by a friend of mine, and then I was with that firm for three or four years, then I came home and went with Dorsey firm. Except for my time in Japan, I’ve been with them ever since.

TLS: You seem to maintain a strong connection with the Minnesota law school.

WM: I do. I love the law school. I was on the board for many years, and we try to help raise money for the law school. I was also on the Dean Selection Committee; we’ve got a wonderful new Dean in Dean Wippman. I try to help in any way I can over there.

TLS: I also noticed that you have a hockey team named after you! The Fighting Mondales?

WM: Yes I do! There’s also an annual farce that the law school puts on called T.O.R.T. (Theater Of the Relatively Talentless) – as a matter of fact, it’s this upcoming weekend. There are a lot of gifted musicians and playwrights and actors and actresses and they put on a different original play every year, that they write. It’s a joy and we always go and I play a cameo role. It takes about two lines!

TLS: Minnesota definitely has an extensive alumni network – a strong selling point for such a great school.

WM: Yes absolutely, but let me just go back a minute. I think the first thing a prospective student has to look at is whether a law school is a superb, top-ranked, sophisticated law school, or is it just a trade school? I’m not putting down trade schools, but I think a student will be missing a lot if he or she doesn’t go to a school that offers the finest education. At the great schools, usually the student body is very strong and you learn from each other and make friends that last a lifetime. And I think that you come out of that experience quite affected by your vision of the law and maybe also your role of service in your lifetime as a lawyer.

So be sure you choose a law school that will help you build that broader vision of where you can fit. And of course, the alumni network is important. You’ll make a lot of friends in your class and among the faculty and they’ll stick around as leaders – both within the state and around the country – for a long, long time. It’s not only that you have these professional associates, but you become good friends and you enjoy seeing each and telling old war stories and so on.

TLS: There is a glut of what you might call “trade schools” in the field of legal education these days. Do you think that there are perhaps too many law schools in the United States?

WM: I haven’t studied that, and I can’t say that I know the specific distinction between these “trade” schools and other “top” law schools. I’m not sure that I can do that. But I think I can feel the difference. A top-ranked national law school attracts the strongest faculty and a very strong student body, and it makes a difference. There are many, many superb law schools and I think in a sense, how many law schools exist, what kind of law schools exist, how many lawyers are being trained, etc. are all things that the market has to figure out. The students themselves have to figure it out. Right now, I think with this weak economy, I think all law schools are having trouble getting everyone hired. And I think that’s something any [prospective law student] should consider.

TLS: Absolutely, especially with tuition at all schools striking higher rates than ever.

WM: A lot of law students are coming out with big bills and they have to spend a lot of their years repaying. Those are all big problems.

TLS: In a lot of cases, this can obviously discourage students from pursuing a life of public service like you did.

WM: You know, and I think that’s not just the law schools’ doing. When we passed the Student Assistance act back in the 60’s, we had some grant programs like the [still-existent] Pell Grant programs, but most of them unfortunately became loan programs. These loans have imposed huge burdens on the students. And what used to be a period in American life for recent graduates who could go out and be idealistic, change the world, and do things not for commercial reasons for a while – maybe for a lifetime – now, many of those same young people who could have contributed to society are now overwhelmed by the debt burdens they have. It has changed America because I think we have fewer and fewer young people who can afford to do what they once could do.

TLS: With all of this in mind – the huge number of schools to choose from, with the massive debt that most students have to take on – once a student makes that choice and sets themselves on a path to pursue a JD, what advice would you give a law student starting their first year in this day and age?

WM: Take law school very seriously. Do your very best in your classwork, try to grow in your sophistication and your understanding and in the broader commitments of your life. This is your one chance to go to a good law school – do it right. This means dropping everything you can to focus on the top priority.

Of course then, I would say that I think it’s a great thing for a student to try and put him or herself in the position where you have to explain what you’re doing. Where you have to write about what you believe. You’re not just an observer or a tourist in law school – you’re a participant. You might do it on a law review, you might do it as a clerk, you might do it in other ways. But try to push yourself into that larger role.

TLS: Excellent advice. Thanks so much for your time.