I Can’t Stop Myself–More on the History of Legal Education Ripped From the Pages of Law School: Legal Education in America from 1850s to the 1980s

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Belva Ann Lockwood

Written by Hazel Weiser

If you want to catch up so that you aren’t starting in the middle, here are links to my prior postings:

November 22: Law School is Not Project Runway

November 3: More History of the Regulation of Legal Education So That We Understand Where We Are and How We Got Here

October 26: Deregulation is Just Another World for …

August 17: In Defense of Legal Education

The middle tier law schools in the years between World War I, essentially pre-standardization, and World War II, when much had been accomplished to establish a singular way to teach law, were driven to emulate Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, just as they do now.  Of course, this desire back then was to get onto the approved ABA list of law schools and an invitation to join the AALS.  Now this emulation comes from an additional source: U.S. News & World Report rankings.

In the years that the ABA and AALS were on the ascent, to call a law school merely a step to get its graduates through the bar exam was considered a horrific insult.

To emulate Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, a law school had to ascribe to the case book method and hire scholars, avoiding experienced practitioners who were considered mediocre in the classroom, perhaps because their intellect had been diminished by pragmatism or worse yet, cynicism.

Unaccredited law schools, some of which became accredited later, insisted that they maintain instruction through lecture rather than through the case book method, in large part because their students were often working and just too tired to respond.  They really did aspire to having their students pass the bar exams.

Some saw these unaccredited law schools as a vehicle for democratization for immigrants and people of color.  Others saw them as scourges on the profession.

Pressure mounted from state legislatures and bar examiners, along with the ABA and AALS, first, to require some college, or at least graduation from high school, before one qualified to sit for the bar exam.  In response, the John Marshall Law School in Chicago established its own high school for prelaw students.  Other schools did, too, including Suffolk.   These regulations, however, helped shut the doors to those unaccredited law schools that catered to African American students, namely Freylinghuysen, Simmons, and Virginia Union.  Howard University School of Law chose the route of ABA approval, which it received in 1930-31, and an invitation to join AALS in 1931.  It was able to accomplish this status by requiring first high school then the equivalent of two years of college before enrollment in the law school.  This was accompanied by a considerable tuition hike, because “quality” was judged by the ABA by the cost of education.  This achievement, however, made the school inaccessible to its target audience.  In 1923-24, when enrollment was much looser, Howard had 135 students.  Once it was on the road to accreditation, although not quite there, in 1926-27, it had only 82 students.

World War II finalized the assault on unaccredited law schools begun by the ABA and AALS as the pool of available students evaporated with selective service.  However, by 1943-44, to make up for the diminished pool, a quarter of enrolled law school students were women.  We wouldn’t see that percentage again until the Second Wave of Feminism in the 1970s.

More later…