American Bar Association / ABA, Law School Deans, Law Schools

The Most Famous Law School You’ve Never Heard Of

Idly surfing the Internet the other day, I read about a law school I’d never heard of (though I will note that your faithful editor Elie Mystal had heard of it, and once made an off-hand reference to it). I thought it might make for some light historical reading while you sweat out your bonus announcements.

It’s hard to be a famous institution if no one has heard of you, but you can earn a measure of fame vicariously through the political and legal résumés of your alumni.

It’s the second oldest law school in the United States, founded five years after William & Mary School of Law. Its alumni include two U.S. Vice Presidents, 101 congressmen, 28 senators, six cabinet secretaries, three justices of the United States Supreme Court, 14 state governors, and 13 state supreme court chief justices.

That’s a pretty decent career counseling department.

What is this mystery school?

It’s Litchfield Law School of Litchfield, Connecticut, and the prominent alumni teased above included Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, and Justice Levi Woodbury, the first SCOTUS member to attend law school. Even education pioneer Horace Mann was a Litchfield man. When you look at the alumni numbers and consider that only about 1,000 students attended the school in its history, it’s a stellar achievement.

The school closed up shop in 1833, which explains the lack persisting fame. Apparently the school failed to attract philanthropic support to expand the facilities and faculty. Maybe they should have started hitting up alums for cash earlier.

An Unexpected Journey into legal scholarship

Litchfield was founded by Tapping Reeve, a man whose portrait resembles an artist’s rendering of Bilbo Baggins. Reeve was a lawyer and eventual Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court who started out as a tutor to a couple of orphaned children named Aaron and Sally Burr. Aaron Burr was quite the gunner.

After tutoring her for some time, Tapping Reeve decided to go ahead and “tap that,” and married the 17-year-old Sally Burr. Reeve was 27 at the time. I can just see the tutoring sessions now: “Hey Sally, what’s your brother’s name?

The school offered a 14-month course based on lectures from its sole professor — first Reeve, later James Gould — which I’m sure students already felt was about one-third too long. The lectures covered general legal principles drawing from Blackstone’s Commentaries and discussion of the evolving practice of law throughout the United States. And that speaks to Litchfield’s record of educating so many national leaders — Litchfield took the lead in approaching legal education as a national pursuit rather than a purely local apprenticeship.

The curriculum was advanced for its time:

The Litchfield Law School’s greatest influence was in shaping future legal education in the United States… However, the school left the more practical or clinical aspects of learning the law was left to further apprenticeship.

Leaving the practical aspects of law to further apprenticeship? Litchfield really did leave a lasting imprint on the shape of the legal curriculum.

Reeve or Gould would give day-long lectures on the law, and encouraged their students to take notes. This “note-taking method” seems kind of obvious to the modern audience, but was unique at the time and had grown out of religious instruction courses at colleges of the day. Apparently the idea of writing down the highlights of a lecture was foreign to education before these schools started promoting the practice.

The problem that cropped up for Litchfield was the extensive note-taking led to unauthorized reproduction. As former students published the content of the lectures, it undermined the whole purpose of attending an in-person lecture. Like a 19th-century RIAA, James Gould actually sought copyright protection to prevent the reproduction of the lectures. The school went under about six years later, so… it probably didn’t work.

But there isn’t universal praise for Litchfield’s contributions to the legal profession. From the late-19th century, the ABA and the Association of American Law Schools, while not directly attacking Reeve and Litchfield, have implicitly denigrated Litchfield’s status as a legal pioneer, casting his school as a forerunner of night schools rather than the “serious” law schools that imposed higher admissions standards and, more importantly, charged more.

Joe Patrice is the author of Recess Appointment, a blog about political rhetoric, and he’ll be dropping in occasionally to write about the intersection of law and politics. To answer the question that you’re probably about to ask, he got his J.D. at NYU and spent ten years working at a Biglaw firm and a white-collar defense boutique. His favorite word is sesquipedalian.

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