The Oldest Law School
posted by Nate Oman
What 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.