It’s 9:40 a.m. on a Thursday, and roughly 60 students are gathered in a classroom at the Ave Maria School of Law in North Naples. They open textbooks, flip legal pads to clean sheets and lay out pens and pencils. Quiet chatter runs through the room as they wait for the morning torts class to begin.
A reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of Sir Thomas More, here referred to as Saint Thomas More, is on a sidewall, and a wooden crucifix hangs from another. The twice-daily Mass schedule is written in the top right corner of the whiteboard at the front of the room. When the professor enters, the low hum of conversation dies down as she greets students and steps to the lectern. She bows her head. The students follow, bowing their heads, and together the classroom recites The Lord’s Prayer. When the last “amen” has been spoken, the professor settles a pair of reading glasses over her nose, picks up a law book and launches in. “Today we’re talking about malfeasance and privy, especially in the area of provenance.”
This year, the Ave Maria School of Law celebrates its 20th anniversary. Over the last two decades, the law school has brought an unapologetically Catholic perspective to legal education, creating a cohort of alumni who have gone on to work at the Vatican, at pro-life advocacy groups and at secular firms both locally and nationally. The school is widely considered to be one of the most conservative law schools in the country, supporting a strict constructionist view of the Constitution. Ave Maria School of Law students bring a particular lens to their studies and their post-graduate careers, a lens that is in keeping with the mission of its founder.
Ave Maria—the community, the undergraduate university and the law school—are all the products of Tom Monaghan, who founded Domino’s Pizza in 1960 and sold the majority of his shares in 1998 for an estimated $1 billion. As the law school’s founding lore goes, Monaghan was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II soon after the sale, and during that audience, Monaghan asked, “How can I use my wealth to support the Catholic cause?”
The Pope replied that in the United States, lawyers often hold positions of power, not just as attorneys and judges but also as politicians. If Monaghan wanted to influence policy, especially pro-life legislation, he should train future generations of lawyers. That’s why, in 2000, Monaghan launched the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It received full accreditation from the American Bar Association in 2005, and in 2009 the school relocated to Naples.
The law school has chosen as its motto fides et ratio, faith and reason, inspired by the 1998 encyclical from Pope John Paul II, which seeks to soften the dualism between the two. One of the most quoted lines from the encyclical: “Faith has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it.”
This conjunction of faith and reason is what drew Luca Hickman to the Ave Maria School of Law. Hickman graduated valedictorian in 2014, and the 31-year-old currently works at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes and Holt. He has a degree in electrical engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering, as well as a second degree in electrical engineering from the Technical University of Applied Sciences in Lubeck, Germany.
The reason for two engineering degrees? “I believed that the way engineers think in the U.S. is slightly different than the way they think in Europe,” Hickman explains. “I had the idea, ‘What if I could think like two engineers?’”
Hickman places a lot of value on the human thought process—his own and that of others. In engineering school, he said, much of what students learn in the classroom is obsolete by the time they walk across the stage with their diploma. What’s essential is not learning about the latest technologies; it’s learning to think like an engineer. Law school, he added, is no different. By the time students study a case, that case may have been overruled. “The point is to learn how to think in a certain way. There’s a methodology to problem-solving, an approach you use, a mindset, what they call in law school ‘thinking like an attorney.’”
At Ave Maria, Hickman learned to think like an attorney with a moral underpinning, and that has guided not just his practice but his life. “I didn’t want to just be a proficient attorney. I wanted to come out a good attorney—good in a moral sense, someone who uses his practice of law to serve the community and be a better member of society and ultimately a better person.”
This type of inspiration attracts many of the law school’s students, and it’s what drew its current dean, Kevin Cieply, who was appointed in 2014. Cieply’s background includes 22 years in the U.S. Army and Wyoming National Guard, both as a helicopter pilot and a JAG officer. He retired from the military as a colonel in 2008. Like the school itself, Cieply is forthright about the role Catholicism plays in his life. As an infant, he was adopted through the Catholic church. His birth mother was 14, unwed and unable to care for him. His adoptive parents couldn’t have children. A priest was able to put them together. “I owe my life to the Catholic church.”
At the Ave Maria School of Law, Cieply enjoys what he calls “the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit on campus.” He acknowledges the role faith plays in the school’s philosophy but emphasizes the importance of reason, as well. “Reason is not the antithesis of faith,” he says. “The two work together.”
As Cieply looks to the future of the law school, he has several goals in mind. One is to continue to expand the three-tier mind, body, spirit program, which is already underway. In February, the school unveiled its new wellness center, which offers cardio machines and a state-of-the-art weight room plus space for Barre, yoga and spin classes. Cieply hired Heidi Roderick as the school’s director of health and wellness, and Roderick has brought a fitness mindset to the campus. She’s organized walking and running groups for students and faculty and led healthy eating courses. She’s also been instrumental in helping the campus achieve its Blue Zones certification.
Academically, Cieply aims to boost the school’s reputation by attracting top-tier students and professors. This is an ongoing project, one that will extend into the years to come. Still, he’s happy to acknowledge that in its 20 years of existence, the young law school has produced some impressive graduates. It currently boasts seven judges on the state and federal level, an alumnus who works at the Vatican and graduates in major corporations and agencies both locally—Arthrex, Chico’s—and nationally.
Cieply is confident that the school will continue to grow, and his job is to guide that growth while keeping faith with the school’s original mission. “What we try to give our students here is a deep understanding of the law that cannot be found without faith and reason working together.”
MIND, BODY, SPIRIT
The motto at Ave Maria School of Law is fides et ratio— faith and reason—but there’s a third term that might be tacked on: fitness. Under Dean Kevin Cieply, who was appointed in 2014, the law school has added health and wellness to its mission. In February, the school opened the sparkling new Cancro Family Wellness Center, which has 21,740 combined square feet of indoor cardio, weight training and fitness classroom space, plus two full basketball courts and a soccer field.
Heidi Roderick was brought on staff to serve as the school’s director of health and wellness, and she’s responsible for guiding the fitness and healthy living initiatives that have become part of the school’s ethos. Roderick, like Cieply, sees physical and mental health as directly correlated with the school’s academic mission. “More and more, research is showing how exercise allows the brain to function more efficiently. We’re making it readily available, affordable and with a plethora of options,” she says.
The new wellness facility was built through the donation of an anonymous donor, and the Cancro family—Peter Cancro is the founder and owner of Jersey Mike’s—donated $2 million toward the facility’s operational expenses. The Kelleher Firm was a donor for the basketball court.