Timetable of Legal History logoThe emergence of the first law school of the United States of America, at least as far as the commencement date goes (1784), pales in comparison to the establishment of law schools elsewhere long before such as in Italy, France, England and China.

However, the United States now leads the world in law student production only because of the world's largest infrastructure of law schools. Thus it behooves a study of legal history to consider the circumstances of the establishment of the first law school in the United States.

Mr. Tapping Reeve will always be remembered as the main character, the driving force behind the now-defunct Litchfield law school (pictured). He was born in 1744 on Long Island, New York, The son of a Presbyterian minister. Graduating from Princeton College in 1763, he first became a grade school teacher.

Litchfield law schoolThe American Revolution lasted from 1775 until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which recognized the sovereignty of the new country, the United States of America. During those events, in about 1770, Reeve moved to Hartford to study law with a local attorney, later judge Elihu Root. There, Reeve married President Aaron Burr's daughter (Sally) and moved to Litchfield in 1778 to practice law. Until the war ended, business was slow and to supplement his income, Reeves taught law to aspiring lawyers.

In 1784, he formalized his services by creating a curriculum and regular classes with the official opening of the Litchfield Law School, a small building constructed next to his mansion. After graduation, students were eligible to being called to the bar at the Litchfield courthouse.

There were no printed law reports of the existing United States courts in 1784. The entire body of law was taken from English law, especially William Blackstone.

More than half of the students came from outside of Connecticut with the largest enrolment being in 1813, with 54 law students.

The curriculum of lectures lasted 18 months and covered the gamut of the law and practise. Students took careful notes on small wooden desk (pictured). When lecturers were finished, these notes were carefully bound into leather volumes which the students used as their basic reference material for commencing their practice of law, just as modern law students will often retain and rely heavily on their law school books and notes for several years.

Litchfield Law School deskRecords show that in 1828, tuition was $100 for the first year and $60 for the second year.

At first, at least until 1798, Reeve was the only administrator and instructor. When he was elected to the bench of the local Supreme Court, his replacement was James Gould (1770-1838).

Eventually, Judge Tapping Reeve withdrew from law school administration and from 1820 until the school closed, Gould ran the school alone with the exception of the last year, where he had the assistance of Jabez Huntington.

America's first law school produced almost 1,000 attorneys including three vice presidents and three United States Supreme Court justices.The Litchfield Historical Society maintains an Internet-accessible roster of former students at http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/lawschool/students.php.

When the Litchfield law school closed, in 1833, the book collection/library was donated to Yale Law School.

James Gould was elevated to the bench.

The Gould name would again be associated with a law school. One of his descendants was Charles Windthrop Gould, a New York lawyer, who left his estate to a nephew, John Barnes. That nephew obtain his law degree at the University of Southern California in 1929 and when he died, he left his uncle's estate to USC. Upon accepting the substantial gift, the University of Southern California Law School changed its name to the USC Gould School of Law.

The old, rickety building in  Litchfield, the site of the nation's first law school, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

REFERENCES:

  • Litchfield Historical Society
  • "Litchfield Law School", West's Encyclopedia of American law, 2nd Ed. (Detroit: Thomson-Gale), Volume 6, pages 335-336.