The Oldest Law School

Litchfield.jpgWhat is the oldest law school in America? Being something of a frustrated historian and living with the two schools that duel for the this title, I’ve looked into the question. Harvard Law School claims to be “the oldest continuously operated law school” in the United States. William & Mary Law School, however, claims to be “the oldest law school in America.” Of course, neither of them is right.

Harvard’s claim is based on the fact that the Royal Professorship of Law was endowed at Harvard in 1806 (the money, incidentally, came from the sale of West Indian slaves) and continues to be a chair at the law school today. Not bad. William & Mary, however, can assert an earlier claim. In 1779 the college made George Wythe professor of law and police. At this point complications arise. William & Mary’s claim to preeminence is complicated by the Civil War. During the war the college shut down, and when it started again after the war their were no law professors. It wasn’t until the 1920s that William & Mary started up its law school again.

Interestingly, if you talk to folks at Harvard about this issue, they see the real competition not as William & Mary, but as the Litchfield Law School. In large part, this is probably simply New England snobbery toward all things intellectual south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but there is a certain logic to Harvard’s anxiety. Tapping Reeve was an attorney in Litchfield Connecticut in the 1770s. To supplement his income he, like many lawyers, took in clerks, who paid him some fee, did basic work, and in return learned the law from him. Reeve found that taking in clerks was lucrative enough that he began multiplying them until in 1784 he began using a very small, one-room school house to give law lectures in. The Litchfield School, however, did not survive petering out in the early 19th century.

Obviously, Litchfield’s claim cannot trump William & Mary’s as a matter of chronology, but it does have one great advantage over the claims of both Cambridge and Williamsburg: It was actually a law school. In contrast, William & Mary and Harvard can merely claim law professors. These early professorships, however, were not really the establishment of law schools, per se. Rather, they were professors of law in a “college” where the tight intellectual and institutional boundaries between disciplines did not yet exist. Indeed, if anything they were probably modelled on the Vinerian Professorship of Law at Oxford, first held by William Blackstone, which was not intended as a source of professional training at all — that was to continue as the preserve of the Inns of Court or (in America) the law office.

Of course, in the end Harvard survived both is Connecticut and Virginia competitors and transformed its professorship into a law school. Yet even once this school was established, its role in the legal profession remained murky. Oliver Wendell Holmes went to Harvard Law School after the Civil War, but it wasn’t until Christopher Columbus Langdell took over and — along with Charles Elliot, president of the university — turned Harvard into the model for American higher education that the first real American law school emerged, but that wasn’t until the 1870s or 1880s at the earliest. Even then, it would take the law schools decades to establish a monopoly over the gateway to the profession. As late as Robert Jackson in the 1940s, we had a sitting Supreme Court justice who had never attended law school.

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13 Responses

  1. Greg says:

    So, you’ve established that Harvard is actually the third law school in the United States 🙂

    (Disclaimer: I went to W&M.)

  2. Dave says:

    By the way, Yale Law School claims to be descended from Litchfield, somehow. Not sure if it’s true or just wishful thinking.

  3. Matt says:

    There’s a vanity history of Yale Law School that I think makes that claim. Worth a read if you’re really, really interested in the history of U.S. legal education.

  4. kentucky-dreaming says:

    When was the Transylvania law school founded? I thought it pre-dated Harvard.

  5. anon says:

    The one history that is undisputed is that there is a proud history of law schools (and universities more generally) reaching back for the earliest date they can to mark the start of the study of law at their school. Penn traces it to the beginning of lectures in law in 1790, although it acknowledges that a law school program did not commence until 1850.

  6. Dan Jacobs says:

    Justice Robert Jackson in fact attended law school. He was a graduate of Albany Law School after he had apprenticed in a law office in Jamestown, NY. I can’t remember off the top of of the type of my head what year Justice Jackson graduated however. The notable aspect of Justice Jackson’s Albany Law School career was that he took Albany Law’s then two year course of study and breezed through it in one year (probably due to his apprenticeship experience). As a current third-year student at Albany Law, I can tell you that Albany Law is quite proud of the fact that Justice Jackson graduated from our school alongside our only other graduate that ascended to the Supreme Court: Justice David Brewer.

    Also, as a sidenote, I can also say that Albany Law School is the oldest, continously running, independent law school in the country (founded in 1851). Most of the schools that Professor Oman mentioned, notably not the Litchfield School, were schools associated with other American colleges.

  7. Brannon Denning says:

    When I visited Litchfield back in the late 90s, the gift shop sold “Litchfield Law School” t-shirts and sweatshirts. I always get a kick of wearing mine around town, because you get lots of smug “Gosh-if-I-went-to-a-law-school-no-one-heard-of-I’m-not-sure-I’d-advertise-it” looks from folks. Sometimes you see a flash of self-doubt, like “should I have heard of that school?” Not much, though.

  8. Katie says:

    Transylvania University and Transylvania Law School (along with a Medical School, Bible College, and Ag school) were founded in 1780. I’m not sure if that puts it up there on the time line or not. However, fun fact I learned recently: a professor at Duke University Law School that teaches a course on the history of law in America, has a lecture dedicated to Transy law school. He theorizes that if it were not for many of the graduates of Transylvania Law School, the Civil War would probably have started years sooner than it did.

  9. Cathy Fields says:

    I am the Director of the Litchfield Historical Society. We own and interpret the Tapping Reeve House and Litchfield Law School. I am also a graduate of William and Mary. I sometimes have conflicting loyalties but I do believe that Litchfield is first.

    Many of Reeve’s students played roles in legal education. More than twenty alumni of the school started or were early professors of new law schools. For example, Edward King, fourth son of notable politician and diplomat Rufus King, took his legal education and family connections west to found the Cincinnati Law School.

    Eduators were only part of the story. The over 1,000 graduates include two Vice-Presidents (Calhoun and Burr), three Supreme Court Justices, 14 Governors, 28 Senators,14 members of the federal cabinet over 100 congressmen and the list goes on. They were an impressive bunch – take a look at our web site to learn more.

  10. raedine Schroeder says:

    I’m looking for Harvard Law School tee shirts, preferably listing various family members bragging about HLS acceptance. ie: My grandson goes to Harvard Law or my nephew, etc.

  11. shelly says:

    After reading this post and various comments, I am still confused! I teach 8th grade U.S. history and maybe I will reword our debate title to state-The Oldest Continuously Running Law School in the U.S.

  12. Adelina N Healy says:

    Have an ancestor Deacon Ebenezer Wales b. 1696 d.1744. He was a lawyer. I wonder where he went to law school?

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