LAW SCHOOL CAME FIRST. WHY CARE?
by W. Taylor Reveley III**
past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope.
Love of the past implies faith in the future.
not thy ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.
Taylor Reveley III*
the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson became governor of Virginia and a member
of the Board of Visitors of William & Mary, his alma mater.
Jefferson was acutely unhappy with the then current state of legal
education. Fledgling lawyers worked as apprentices in the offices of practicing
lawyers, in theory learning the law from their mentors but in practice spending
most of their time as human xerox machines.
Jefferson felt aspiring lawyers should be trained in a university amid
the liberal arts, with the expectation they would become leaders of their
communities, states and nation. He
wanted new lawyers educated to be not simply skilled practitioners of law but
also servants of the public interest. He
wanted to educate citizen lawyers.3
During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson became governor of
Virginia and a member of the Board of Visitors of William & Mary, his alma
mater. Jefferson was acutely unhappy
with the then current state of legal education. Fledgling lawyers worked as
apprentices in the offices of practicing lawyers, in theory learning the law
from their mentors but in practice spending most of their time as human xerox
machines. Jefferson felt aspiring
lawyers should be trained in a university amid the liberal arts, with the
expectation they would become leaders of their communities, states and nation.
He wanted new lawyers educated to be not simply skilled practitioners of
law but also servants of the public interest.
He wanted to educate citizen lawyers.
On December 4, 1779, Jefferson succeeded in persuading his colleagues on
the William & Mary board to begin legal training at the College.
To this end, the board created a new professorship in Alaw
meaning public policy). Jefferson
then recruited his own beloved law teacher, George Wythe, to assume the post.
By any measure, Wythe was an extraordinary man, a person of protean
ability and accomplishment. He was
the leading lawyer of Virginia. His
contemporaries insisted that Anot
one dirty coin ever reached the bottom of Wythe=s
referring to his habit of resigning
from any representation, with fees returned, if he found his client=s
position unjustified as the facts evolved. Over
the course of his career, Wythe served in all three branches of Virginia=s
government: as attorney general of the colony, member and clerk of the House of
Burgesses and later speaker of the House of Delegates, and as one of Virginia=s
leading judges. In the forefront of
the Revolutionary generation, he signed signing the Declaration of Independence
and served in the Continental Congress. Wythe was among the framers of the
United States Constitution and thereafter one of its most effective champions in
ratifying convention. He was also a
scholar of striking range and depth, as well as a master teacher.
In short, Wythe=s
appointment as the College=s
first law professor was a perfect way to begin legal training at William &
The effort got off to a rousing start.
While Wythe emphasized political economy and public law, he also insisted
his students build a solid foundation in English common law.
Wythe lectured twice a week. Often
listening along with his students were undergraduates and interested members of
the community. He revived the old
English custom of moot courts, sitting once or twice a month with other
professors to judge student arguments. He
initiated a Saturday custom of holding mock legislative proceedings in the old
colonial capitol in Williamsburg; the students dealt with the substantive and
procedural aspects of important bills then pending in the Virginia General
Assembly in Richmond. Thomas
Jefferson liked what he saw. In
1780, he wrote James Madison enthusiastically:
Our new institution at the College
has had a success which has gained it universal applause.
school is numerous. They hold weekly
courts and assemblies in the capitol. The
professors join in it; and the young men dispute with elegance, method and
learning. This single school by
throwing from time to time new hands well principled and well informed into the
legislature will be of infinite value.
first students at William & Mary was John Marshall, later the fourth and
greatest chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Over the course of his career, Wythe taught a host of Virginia=s
and the country=s
early leaders, starting with Thomas Jefferson and ending with Henry Clay.
They revered him.
Wythe led the new program in law at William & Mary for a decade.
Another lawyer of striking ability and prominence, St. George Tucker,
followed him. Both of these seminal
figures in legal education insisted that their students engage the leading
issues of the day, even the most sensitive, slavery in particular.
Wythe and Tucker vehemently opposed it.
This is how Tucker put the issue to his students:
How far the condition of that
unfortunate race of men, whom the unhappy policy of our forefathers has reduced
to that degraded condition, is reconcileable to the principles of a free
republic, it might be hard for the advocates of such a policy to shew.
It was, at least, presumed that . . . in this country, where the
blessings of liberty have been so lately, and so dearly purchased, it could not
be deemed improper to inquire whether there was a due correspondence between our
avowed principles, and our daily practice; and if not, whether it were
practicable, consistently with our political safety, to wipe off that stigma
from our nation and government.
By the 1790s, William & Mary had become quite demanding in its
requirements for a law degree. In
1792, for instance, the College=s
statutes stated that Afor
the degree of Bachelor of Law, the student must have the requisites for Bachelor
of Arts; he must moreover be well acquainted with Civil History, both Ancient
and Modern, particularly with Municipal law and police.@
In 1793, William & Mary conveyed its first formal Bachelor of Law
degree to William H. Cabell. In due
course, he became Governor of Virginia and a justice on the Virginia Supreme
Court of Appeals. Like John Marshall
and many others, Cabell proved to be the citizen lawyer whom William & Mary
Law School was created to produce.
Between them, George Wythe and St. George Tucker got legal training off
to a splendid start at William & Mary. This was the first university-based
legal program in America, coming only slightly later than Sir William Blackstone=s
1758 professorship in law at Oxford.
During a 1964 lecture in England, one of Harvard Law School=s
incomparable deans, Erwin Griswold, spoke about the origins of legal education
in the United States. AThough
Wythe and Tucker were professors in a university, without being set up as a
Griswold said, Athe
difference is simply one of definition. There
can be no doubt that Wythe and Tucker and their successors at William and Mary
were engaged in a substantial, successful and influential venture in legal
education, and that their effort can fairly be called the first law school in
So William & Mary Law School came first.
Who cares? To judge by
behavior, people do put stock in what came first and, more generally, in things
with some age on them. Jamestown
stresses it got underway before Plymouth Rock as the oldest permanent English
settlement in America (Apermanent,@
Jamestown adds to its claim, to deal with the existence of earlier failed
settlements). Among the various
states, Virginia and Massachusetts guard their temporal primacy.
Washington and Lee University and Hampden-Sydney College will disagree
forever over which is the tenth oldest institution of higher education in the
United States and which the eleventh. Most
people prefer to cite the sayings of long dead presidents than those still
living or only recently gone the way of all flesh.
We line up to see famous old things, like the original Declaration of
Independence. We suffer angst when
antiquities are lost. We celebrate institutional birthdays every 25 years, with
special passion on occasions denominated in the 100s.
Why do people behave this way? Perhaps
because there is a presumption of quality inherent in age.
People who belong to old institutions, accordingly, often feel
distinguished themselves because of the association.
They are nourished vicariously by the institution=s deep roots and flourish under the glory of its ancient
foliage. They feel linked to past generations, on common ground with those who
also have been nourished by the institution in earlier years.
This is especially true when those who have gone before went on to
Why should there be a presumption of quality in age?
Perhaps because it suggests staying power, the capacity over time to
survive adversity and seize opportunity, the poise and dignity that come from
surmounting countless flaps and crises, and the wisdom born of experience,
especially the knowledge what not to change even as everything else does.
To quote myself from a related context,
Whether universities, regiments or law firms, some institutions move
powerfully from one generation to the next.
Others find themselves becalmed, or they founder.
Reasons for success or failure are legion.
But those institutions that prevail usually take strength from their
past. They remember their heroes,
their times of peril and triumph, and their basic beliefs.
The importance of the past as a source of confidence and poise grows with
the turmoil of the present.
As never before, law firms need the direction and dignity that come from
knowing their roots. When firms
reorganize their structure to adapt to current realities, if their basic
character is to endure, it becomes all the more crucial that they know what not
to change. The best of their past
usually provides a guide.
The struggles and mistakes of the past are also a useful guide.
They reassure and comfort. Disputes
. . . are nothing new. Nor is the
introduction into the firm, sometimes with wrenching impact, of seasoned lawyers
who began their careers elsewhere. Ways
of governing . . . come and go, not always happily.
People get angry. But, if
successful, the firm goes forward, tempered by the passage through its fires.
It does matter, in my view, that William & Mary Law School=s roots run old and deep into American history.
The resilience and strength of these roots brought the school back to
life after a near death experience during the Civil War and preserved the school
in 1939 when William & Mary=s
own Board of Visitors voted to close it to save money for an impoverished
university. It was roots the
students argued, in surging opposition to this board decision, (which they got
reversed in three days). It is roots
that provide William & Mary Law School with its original and enduring
intent. Thomas Jefferson=s
design for legal training at William & Mary B
the education of citizen lawyers B
remains as compelling in 2003 as it was in 1779 when George Wythe became
Professor of Law and Police and in 1939 when students saved the school into
first breathed life.
and Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School. John D. Owens III,
W&M Law School =05,
provided research help for this article.
The Ambrose quote comes from an interview in the May 2001 edition of Fast
Company, at 168.
Thus, for Jefferson, university legal education was to be part of Athe
in which the political leadership of the republic could be nurtured, forming
statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual
so much depended. To provide the political support for leadership so
propagated, Jefferson planned for universities to provide some legal
training for all the intellectual elite in attendance.
Paul D. Carrington, The Revolutionary Idea of University Legal
Education, 31 WM. & MARY
L. REV. 527, 529 (1990) (quoting letter from Thomas Jefferson to Governor John
Tyler (May 26, 1810), in XII THE WRITINGS
393 (Library ed., 1904)).
Carrington, supra note 1, at 534.
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (July 26, 1780), in
3 THE PAPERS
OF THOMAS JEFFERSON,
at 507 (Julian P. Boyd ed., 1950), reprinted
in Davison M. Douglas, The Jeffersonian Vision of Legal Education,
51 J. LEGAL EDUC.
185, 202 (2001).
1801, while Wythe was in Richmond, one of his former students was serving as
President of the United States, another as Chief Justice of the United
States, while a third, James Monroe, served as governor of the nation=s
largest state before becoming the nation=s
fifth President in 1817.@
Carrington, supra note 1, at 538.
1 BLACKSTONE=S COMMENTARIES:
OF REFERENCE TO THE
LAWS OF THE FEDERAL
GOVERNMENT OF THE
OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF
at xi-xii (St. George Tucker ed., 1803),
reprinted in Douglas, supra note 3, at 204.
Ira Bernard Dworkin, America=s
First Law School: The College of William and Mary,
37 A.B.A.J. 348, 349 (1951); Robert M. Hughes, William and Mary, the
First American Law School, WM.
& MARY Q., 2d Ser.
II, at 42 (Jan. 1922).
chair in law [at William & Mary] was the first of its kind at an
American university, and second in the English-speaking world, only
antedated by Oxford=s
Vinerian chair of law, first held in 1758 by Sir William Blackstone.@
1 THE HISTORY
OF LEGAL EDUCATION IN
(Steve Sheppard ed., 1999).
William F. Swindler, America=s
First Law Schools: Significance or Chauvinism?,
41 CONN. B. J. 1, 7
(1967); see also Douglas, supra note 3, at 186 n.3; ERWIN
AND LAWYERS IN THE UNITED
W. Taylor Reveley III, Foreword to ANNE
OF A LAW FIRM: EIGHT GENTLEMEN
at xiii, xiv (1989).