Early Legal Education

Notwithstanding the splintered beginnings of American law, the accepted preparation for becoming a lawyer remained the completion of an apprenticeship under a trained lawyer, along with self-reading of such printed sources as the American edition of William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England” (which first appeared in the 1760s) and James Kent’s “Commentaries on American Law.” Eventually, Blackstone’s Commentaries sold as many copies in America as in England.

The earliest known formal legal education was at Oxford University, as early as the 1750s. William Blackstone began offering lectures on the English common law at that time (which became the source for his later Commentaries), and many smaller American universities later followed his example. In 1779, a chair of law was established at William and Mary College in Virginia. There followed a series of independent schools of law, not associated with universi-ties or colleges, which functioned as offshoots of the apprenticeship system. The most notable of these (and credited as the first law school in the country) was the Litchfield Law School in Connecticut. Founded by Judge Tapping Reeve, the school looked much like a country schoolhouse, and operated solely on daily lectures. There were no prerequisites or entrance requirements and no final examinations. The school operated continuously from 1784 to 1833. After this time, schools like Litchfield died out or merged with instruction in a university setting.

It is important to note that from the latter 1700s to the second half of the 1800s, the legal profession in the United States was not considered academic or elite, but rather vocational and functional. The present day “law school” did not take shape until 1829, when Justice Joseph Story reorganized the separate law department at Harvard University. Prior to that time, legal studies were considered part of a broader liberal education at the universities, and non-university law schools were comparable to modern-day vocational schools.

Justice Story set up Harvard’s law school curriculum as an exclusive legal education, premised on the assumption that its students had acquired a sufficient background in liberal arts prior to admission to law school. However, even the ambitious Harvard program had more intellectual pretension than substance. There were no entrance examinations, interim examinations, or final examination. The only requirement was the completion of two years at the school and the payment of fees.

By 1870, America had over 30 university law schools, mostly premised on Story’s model. In reality, however, these schools had no academic admissions requirements, and no attempt was made to ensure that students had already achieved the antecedent liberal education contemplated by Story.


Inside Early Legal Education