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School Established When Skeletons Were Vetoed


It all started when one Isaac Royall died in 1781 and included in his will a provision for "a Professor of Laws . . . or a Professor of Physick and Anatomy, whichever the . . . Overseers and Corporation shall judge to be best." Appalled by his grammar, the Overseers nevertheless spent 34 years collecting the money. By 1815 all $7500 was in the till, so the Corporation flipped a spare half-dime, decided that it should keep the skeletons looked in the closet, and went out and hired Massachusetts Chief Justice Isaac Parker as Royall Professor of Law.

The plan did not work out too well, as Parker had little time left over from his judicial duties and merely gave occasional lectures to groups of undergraduates, graduates, and a sprinkling of Boston lawyers.

To remedy this trouble, Parker proposed to the Corporation that a Law School be set up separate from the College. The Corporation immediately accepted the plan, and announced the establishment of the first school of law at any American or British university. The new school was housed in three ground floor rooms of a building next to the County Courthouse, and County Attorney Asahel Stearns was named University Professor of Law to handle the administrative burden and aid Parker in his teaching duties.

Low Attendance

This revolutionary plan did little to cure the law situation as new students averaged only about nine a year during the next decade. Just when the Corporation was wishing that it had gone into the anatomy business instead, it managed to secure the resignations of Parker and Stearns, got Nathan Dane, a leading Federalist politician, to give $10,000 for a Dane Professorship for Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, and hired John Hooker Ashmun to serve as a full-time Royall Professor.

These sweeping changes immediately doubled Law School enrollment, and registration figures continued growing year by year. This immediately created a new problem, for three rooms could no longer contain the activity of the would-be lawyers.

Again Dane came to the rescue, this time with the donation of funds to construct Dane Hall. At this point the Law School entered the first of its many "golden ages," as, under Story's leadership, it grew to 150 students. To teach all these, several new instructors were appointed, including the later-to-be-famous Charles Sumner. Another Story innovation was the division of the School into classes according to proficiency.

Golden Age

Story was just about to resign as Supreme Court Justice and devote his full time to the Law School, when he died suddenly in 1845. He was mourned by his contemporaries as a "great personality behind a great institution."

The triumvirate of Professors Parker, Parsons, and Washburn new took over the management of the school. Continuing to follow the general pattern laid down by Story, they arrived at a "golden age" during the Civil War.

Immediately after the War, however, a reaction set in. Standards of scholarship declined as students treated the school as a place to learn a trade. No Faculty meetings had been held in 20 years, and the course offerings of the school remained unchanged throughout the period. By 1869 the situation had grown so bad that the influential American Law Review declared: "The condition of the Harvard Law School is almost a disgrace to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

At this juncture, the Corporation voted to establish a Deanship for the Law School, and Christopher Columbus Langdell, recently appointed Dane Professor of Law, was elected to fill the post.

Thus the Law School entered its modern era.

The first step in repairing the school's reputation was the requirement that students pass an examination to receive degrees. In 1876, the length of the law course was extended from two to three years. Meanwhile, making up for 20 years lost time, Langdell had made extensive changes in the curriculum.

But the greatest of all Langdell's innovations was the establishment of the "case system" of instruction. Whereas formerly students learned the law from texts, they now turned to the original cases which made the law, learning what reasoning was behind decisions and the conditions under which the case had developed.

This method has now been described as "one of the most important educational discoveries ever made," with widespread application throughout all the social sciences; but at the time of its introduction it met determined opposition from both Faculty and students. Many of the latter so intensely disliked Langdell's changes that they transfered to Boston University Law School.

The two-pronged opposition to the case method and a subsequent financial crisis because of decreasing receipts from tuitions left the Law School facing the worst crisis in its history.

Hung on Grimly

However, Langdell hung on grimly, and by 1880 he had won approval for his methods. When, in 1882, a flood of donations began to pour in, enabling the school to undertake a program of large scale physical expansion, enrollments shot up, and Langdell had successfully launched the third "golden age."

1886 saw the founding of the Law Review, which was to grow to be one of the most influential journals in the entire legal field. In the same year the Law School Association, an alumni association, was established. This organization maintained a close liaison with the school, and it was a great aid in helping graduates find jobs.

But even with the Law School returned to an even higher esteem than ever in the eyes both of the legal profession and the general public, Langdell did not rest in his efforts to improve scholastic standards, for in 1893 a rule was passed requiring a college degree for admission in all but the most exceptional cases. At the time this was an unprecedented action, and it brought down upon the University the cry of snobbishness and the charge that "Langdell would turn down Lincoln if he applied for admission."

As with other Langdell reforms, this one was widely accepted by the nation's leading law schools within 15 years.

Langdell resigned in 1895 because increasing blindness made it impossible for him to carry on his duties. He left behind him a school that had grown from 136 to 413 students, endowments that had risen from $37,000 to $360,000, and an educational system that had spread throughout the world.

Langdell's successor was James B. Ames, who carried on in the traditions of his predecessor. With Ames at the helm, the Law School saw another major addition to its physical plant with the erection of Langdell Hall in 1905.

Ames died in 1910, and Ezra R. Thayer was named to fill the vacant Deanship. In the first year of his administration an important change was made in Law School life.

This was the establishment of a one-year graduate course leading to the degree of Doctor of Juridical Science. This move was of profound importance, for it meant that the Law School was turning out not only lawyers, but also men trained in legal theory who were specifically prepared to undertake the teaching of law. Thus the legal theories developed at Harvard were diffused even more rapidly than before throughout the United States.

Under Pound in 1916

Under Dean Pound there gradually evolved a whole new concept of the law. Formerly, the law was treated as an isolated field of study. Dean Pound realized that this view left law out of touch with life, and hence he insisted that the law be taught in forms of its relationship with other fields of human endeavor. Thus the law must be thought of as a positive factor in the political and sociological structure of civilization.

It was because of this philosophy that Harvard became the national leader in training men for government service.

Thus, when he retired as Dean in 1955, Dean Pound left the Law School in the midst of its fourth "golden age."

Today, the Law School faces serious problems in the very tight dormitory situation and the usual worry of graduate school eating facilities.

But far more important are the plans being drawn up which deal with the future of the School's methods of legal education. A Committee on Legal Education under Professor Lon L. Fuller has already drawn up "for inside consumption" a preliminary proposal for what Dean Griswold declares will be "evolution, not revolution."

Yale Law School has already presented its program too the years to come in the form of its "sociological theory of law." But Law School officials find no aside for Harvard in this. Their reply is a symbol of the Law School's states in the legal and educational world. "That's nothing new," says Dean Griswold. "We had years ago.

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