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There were no law schools in colonial America. Those who sought a legal career had several options. They could embark on a self-directed course of study; they could serve as an assistant in a clerk of court's office; or they could travel to England to study at the Inns of Court. The most common method of obtaining a legal education, however, was through the apprenticeship system.
The apprenticeship system allowed men (it was generally unavailable to women) to acquire education and experience by working under an experienced practitioner. Ideally, an apprentice would spend several years learning both the law and the practical aspects of a law practice. The quality of apprenticeships varied greatly, however, depending on the administering attorney's skill and attention. Some apprenticeships were merely a source of cheap labor. Thomas Jefferson once commented that the services he was expected to render as an apprentice were worth more than the instruction he received.
In 1779, Jefferson helped found the first chair of law, at William and Mary College, and appointed his mentor, George Wythe, to fill it. Yale, Columbia, the University of Maryland, and Harvard followed suit. The positions they established were part of the general university curriculum and were typically filled by practitioners rather than academicians. This early movement to emphasize the scholarship of law gained little momentum because most lawyers believed that apprenticeships provided sufficient legal training. In 1784, however, proprietary (for-profit) law schools began to spring up, which spurred the transformation of legal education.
Proprietary law schools were essentially specialized and elaborate law offices. The first and most famous was Connecticut's Litchfield Law School. Its 14-month course provided instruction in subjects such as property, contracts, procedure, master-and-servant, and commercial law—similar to the subjects of some of today's first-year law school classes. Litchfield graduated about one thousand students in its 49-year history, including 2 future vice presidents, 101 congressmen, 28 senators, 14 governors, and scores of distinguished state jurists.
The advent of law professorships, proprietary schools, and bar associations brought some standard of form to legal education. These standards deteriorated, however, thanks in part to Andrew Jackson, who was elected the seventh president of the United States in 1828. Jackson, a lawyer, considered himself to be a champion of the common person. State legislatures quickly followed his lead, eschewing anything elitist and reasserting authority formerly delegated to bar associations. Bar admission standards declined. Nearly anyone who could show "good moral character" was permitted to practice law, regardless of any knowledge of the field. bar examinations, if required at all, were usually perfunctory.
Standards dropped even at Harvard Law School, which was founded in 1817 as the first academic law school. By the end of the 1820s, students who were denied admission to Harvard College could go directly into the law school; the school also quit giving exams. In 1829, however, Justice Joseph Story of the U.S. Supreme Court became a Harvard Law professor and augured Harvard's emergence as the first modern law school. In 1870, Christopher Columbus Langdell became dean of Harvard Law School, essentially launching the modern era of legal education.
Langdell believed that law could be taught as a science. Rather than listening passively to lectures and reading treatises, Langdell's students dissected reported case decisions. Using a technique known as Socratic dialogue, professors bombarded their students with questions, forcing them to analyze the facts, reasoning, and law in each case. In addition, Langdell grouped related cases together, devoting separate books to different topics. Langdell's method of instruction through dialogue and case-study is standard in today's law schools.
Langdell also instituted tighter admission standards, expanded the program from two to three years, and raised graduation requirements. Other university law schools soon began to adopt some of Harvard's lofty standards.
The American Bar Association (ABA), founded in 1878, along with the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), formed in 1900, worked to consign apprenticeships to the pages of history. In 1917, 36 out of 49 jurisdictions still required a period of apprenticeship, but future lawyers could substitute law school. In the last half of the nineteenth century, a high school graduate could enter most law schools, but the ABA and the AALS worked to steadily increase admission standards. By 1931, 17 states required two years of college before admission, and 33 had a three-year law curriculum. Just eight years later, 41 states required at least two years of college. Today, law schools require prospective students to have a four-year degree from an accredited college or university.
Professional legal development continues throughout a lawyer's career. In 1975, Minnesota was the first state to mandate Continuing Legal Education for practitioners, requiring 45 hours of approved legal study every three years. Since then, the majority of states have established rules that require some form of mandatory continuing education, although requirements vary by state. Continuing education is also required for attorneys who wish to be board certified as specialists in a certain area of law. Certified legal specialist programs are offered in many states, and are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).
The law profession, like many others, was slow to open up to women. The first woman lawyer in the United States was Arabella Mansfield, who became a member of the Illinois bar in 1869. Mansfield studied in her brother's law office, and was admitted to the bar despite the fact that Illinois legislation required any person applying for bar admission to be white, male, and over 21 years of age. Ada Kepley was the first woman in the United States to earn a law degree. She graduated from Union College of Law (now Northwestern University Law School) in 1870. By 1930, most U.S. law schools were admitting women, but not Harvard Law School. The school remained closed to women until 1950. Although women were finally accepted into law schools, the number of women who attended was scant. Until the mid-1960s, less than 3 percent of law students were women. Those numbers surged during the 1970s. Today, women make up almost 50 percent of U.S. law school admissions.
Desegregation of law schools came no more quickly than it did to other educational institutions, despite the pivotal role lawyers played in the desegregation process. Since the 1960s, minority enrollment in law schools has increased, but the numbers still remain low. In 1960, about one percent of law school students were African American. By the late 1990s, that number had grown to only 8 percent. As a result, a number of schools have active recruitment programs to help ensure greater diversity in their student body.
When schools use race as a factor in the admissions process, however, critics charge that they are violating constitutional rights. Such charges have led to a number of controversial cases, including Grutter v. Bollinger (288 F. 3d 732 ), in which a prospective white student contended that she was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School because the school uses race as a deciding factor in admissions. In a 5–4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the school's admission policy did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because there was a "compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
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