Nicholas Spaeth: The Passing of an American Hero

Nicholas Spaeth, 64, was found dead at an address in Fargo, North Dakota, on Sunday after police received a call about a suicidal male at that address.

I consider Mr. Spaeth to be a  hero for his courageous stance against age discrimination in hiring at American law schools.

Despite impeccable credentials, Mr. Spaeth, a former two-term North Dakota Attorney General, could not find an entry level teaching job at any American law school for 2011-2012.  He lost out to applicants who were decades younger and far less qualified.  Some had just two or three years of practice experience.

Now for the hero part.

Mr. Spaeth courageously filed age discrimination lawsuits against a half dozen law schools, thereby exposing himself to public ridicule and humiliation.  For example, one legal commentator said his case was “dubious” and another said he was using the legal system in a back door maneuver to get a teaching job.

Shamefully, a jury never got the chance to consider his age discrimination claims, despite what seemed to be substantial evidence of age discrimination. He withdrew some lawsuits after adverse rulings. In another, a judge dismissed the case on pretrial motion, ruling there was no way that a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Spaeth was a victim of age discrimination. It’s unclear what will happen  to the remaining case against the University of Missouri Law School.

He produced an internal memo from Georgetown University’s law school that discussed the need to hire “promising young scholars.”  Meanwhile, hiring committee members wrote on documents related to the hiring process that applicants were both young and older, showing that age was a consideration.  The judge bought Georgetown’s argument that “young” did not refer to age but was a synonym for “new.”

Michigan law school hired three attorneys who graduated in 2006, 2005 and 2001.  The applicant hired to teach corporate taxation had three years of practical experience as an associate in a law firm. Mr. Spaeth was a former General Counsel for H&R Block..

Mr. Spaeth was only 60 when he applied for a full-time teaching position through the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in 2010.  The AALS holds a conference each fall in Washington, DC, at which law schools interview candidates for teaching jobs.  Of 172 law schools, only two offered Mr. Spaeth an interview, and he already worked part-time at one of them. He got no job offers.

The defendants argued that Mr. Spaeth lacked evidence of legal scholarship, even though he had filed over 40 amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, edited a book on Native American law and authored numerous articles and reports on credit rate risk and the mortgage crisis.

The fact is that few candidates could have shone a spotlight on the stinking cesspool of age discrimination that exists in American law schools like Mr. Spaeth. Here are just a few of Mr. Spaeth’s  incredible qualifications:

He graduated  Phi Beta Kappa, from Stanford University. A Rhodes Scholar, he earned a Master’s Degree from Oxford University in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, graduating with First Class Honors. He attended Stanford law School and served as Managing Editor of the Stanford Law Review.  He was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White from 1978 to 1979.

After serving two consecutive terms as Attorney General for North Dakota, he was  General Counsel for several Fortune 500 corporations, including Intuit, Inc. and H & R Block. He supervised  hundreds of lawyers and directed a diverse array of business and commercial  litigation.

Mr. Spaeth even had four years of teaching experience – as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and as a visiting professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law.

Lynne Bernabei, a Washington attorney who represented Mr. Spaeth in the age discrimination cases,  issued the following statement on Monday:  “He was a pioneer in forcing an examination of the age bias in law school faculty hiring …  It’s too bad he did not get to see the future reform assisted by his efforts.”

I would like to extend my condolences to Mr. Spaeth’s family. Whatever may have caused him to leave this world, he left it a better place.


  1. ellen cobb says:

    that is a heartbreaking story, and enraging to learn of such blatant age discrimination. Mr Speath would have made a fascinating professor. thanks for writing this tribute and exposing the clear unnecessary bias apparent in hiring at some (hope not all but may be naive) law schools.

  2. Jim Johnson says:

    There was no finer person or attorney than Nicholas Spaeth anywhere. He was such a good person.


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