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April 27, 1995

Law school looks back over its first 100 years

The year 1895 was truly a banner one for culture and education in Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie's new institute along Forbes Avenue, out among the cow pastures of Oakland, opened it doors for the first time and the Pittsburgh Symphony was formed to bring the world's great music to a town known for having plenty of wealth, but little culture. At Pitt, Chancellor William Holland made the University coeducational in 1895, giving up his large office for the use of women students, and the Department of Legal Instruction was inaugurated. The first law class had 35 students, "a very large percentage of them being graduates of colleges of repute," some of them "the sons of a number of gentlemen of eminence at the bar and on the bench." "Actually, there were a couple of false starts with the law school," says Edward Sell, professor emeritus in Pitt's School of Law and author of its centennial history, "The Law-Down: A Century Remembered." "Back in 1843, they started to offer a few courses in law that a Walter Lowrie taught." That first effort to establish a law school at Pitt ended exactly 150 year ago, on April 10, 1845, when a backyard fire at Ferry and Second streets, Downtown, spread out of control. By the time the blaze was spent, it had consumed 56 acres in the heart of the city, including the University's main hall, and all of its records, then located at Third Street and Cherry Way. Following the fire, Lowrie accepted a judgeship and gave up teaching. Pitt would not offer law classes again until 1870, when three local attorneys were hired on a part-time basis to teach courses in such areas as common law, real estate law, criminal law, domestic relations and insurance.

Pitt's second stab at establishing a law school ended when other local attorneys, including one who was on the University's Board of Trustees, refused to give up the traditional system by which attorneys were admitted to the bar. At the time, lawyers were educated by reading law and clerking in a law office.

"You served as an apprentice," explains Sell. "You paid for the privilege of doing that. After you served several years, you could take the bar examination. The apprenticeship was a cheap form of labor for lawyers. People would work all day in the office and pay for the privilege." When the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners announced that attendance at the Pitt lectures would be worth a year spent reading law in a law office, prospective lawyers flocked to the courses. That touched off an uproar among local attorneys. They complained so long and so loudly that the three lawyers teaching the courses resigned their professorships in 1873 and the University again abandoned the idea of a law school.

The growth of the steel industry in the late 19th century pushed Pittsburgh well into the ranks of the nation's major cities. Aware that every university in a major city had a law school, a group of faculty members approached Chancellor Holland about trying once again to establish a law school at Pitt.

"That was around 1893," says Sell. "Chancellor Holland gathered together a group of judges and prominent lawyers to discuss the founding of what was originally the law department." John Shaffer, one of those locally prominent attorneys, agreed to serve as dean of the new department. He formed a part-time faculty composed of local lawyers and judges. In 1895, Pitt became a charter member of the Association of American Law Schools and began conducting classes in the Allegheny County Orphans Courtrooms. Classes were offered only in the afternoon because the court met in the morning.

Eventually, the law school moved into what Sell believes was the Pittsburgh Latin School at Ross Street and Fourth Avenue, Downtown, present site of the County Office Building. The building had been condemned because the county was going to construct its own office building on the site, but the law school was allowed to use it until work got underway.

Around 1910, the school moved into the Chamber of Commerce Building Downtown. It was there that the law school got its first full-time faculty member in the early 1920s. He was Judson Adams Crane, who had been teaching law at a law school in China.

"I am not too sure about some of these dates," Sell adds. "There is very little material available on the first 50 years of the law school. Most of whatever material I could find was gleaned from the minutes of faculty meetings." The St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936 put much of Downtown Pittsburgh underwater and drove the law school to higher ground in the Cathedral of Learning, where it remained until the current law building opened in January 1976. In the Cathedral, the school's quarters were so cramped that students were allowed in the law library only if they were doing research. Studying was not permitted. However, the school's offices on the 15th floor did provide a good view of the action in Forbes Field and other locations.

A well known story at the school from the late 1940s involves a student who was watching a Pirate game through a pair of binoculars. During the course of the game, he turned his sights on the Schenley Hotel and caught a female dancer from a local troupe emerging from the shower. Within days there were 20 pairs of binoculars stashed in that office. But the space problem was no joke. By the late 1960s, the law school's quarters in the Cathedral were so cramped that the situation threatened the school's accreditation. Sell, who joined the law faculty in 1947 and served as dean of the law school from 1966 to 1977, warned the administration of the problem in 1969. But he was rebuffed, told the law school would have to wait its turn for a new building.

"I was feeling impetuous," Sell recalls. "So I said to my wife one day, 'I won't be home tomorrow night.' She said, 'Why is that?' I told her, 'I am going to Harrisburg to take the Pitt law school alumni in the legislature to dinner.'" At the time, seven members of the Pennsylvania legislature were graduates of Pitt's School of Law. Over dinner, and a few drinks afterwards, Sell happened to mention that the school was in danger of losing its accreditation if it did not get new quarters. The alumni reacted a month later by presenting a bill in the legislature to fund a new law school building.

"You can imagine what happened," Sell says. "I was called on the carpet, told that I had done an end run on the chancellor and was disloyal. I admitted it and pointed out that as dean I served at the chancellor's pleasure and if he wanted to fire me by sundown he could. But he didn't and we got the building." During the school's earliest years, the faculty taught law in two ways. The first method used a treatise on a particular subject, such as property law or contracts. The second method employed an instructor's own cases and rulings handed down on them by Pennsylvania courts. Around the turn of the century, though, both of those methods gave way to case book studies, where students would study and dissect cases in law books.

"One thing that is interesting is that when the law school was instituted in 1895, students went directly from high school to law school," Sell says. "They didn't have to go to college. All you had to do for the state Board of Law Examiners was pass proficiency exams in subjects like Latin, geography, history, English literature and so forth. Then you went straight to law school." In the early 20th century, universities began requiring a year of college prior to law school. That requirement eventually increased to two years, and then three years and finally four years. A law degree remained a bachelor's degree, however, until the late 1960s, when law schools throughout the country finally changed the degree they offered to juris doctorate. The change was made to bring graduates of law schools in line with other holders of advanced degrees in the federal government's job rankings.

At the time of the change, Pitt's law school was in such bad financial shape that it was forced to cancel library subscriptions to a number of journals. When a member of the University's Board of Trustees pointed out that other institutions had switched to the juris doctorate degree and made it retroactive, administrators in the law school decided to do the same. A letter was sent to every alumnus, offering to convert his or her degree from bachelor of law to juris doctorate for $25. Sell estimates that 97 percent of alumni responded and says the law school took in enough money to pay the subscriptions for the journals it needed.

Although the law school hired its first full-time faculty member in the early 1920s, it never had more than four full-time faculty members until after World War II. "The history of the law school divides itself almost perfectly in half," says Sell. "From 1895 to 1945, it was a predominantly local, parochial school with a small full-time faculty and students who mostly lived in the Pittsburgh area. Then, after World War II, a significant full-time faculty was hired to handle all the G.I.s coming out of the service." More recently, the law school has been experiencing change in the instructional process. Computers have made research easier by providing quick access to legal materials and the case book method has evolved into teaching more basic problem solving skills and clinical work, such as a free legal clinic for indigent people in the Pittsburgh area, according to Sell.

The changes have made the law school less cost effective, but improved employment opportunities for graduates. In the past legal education was a profitable form of graduate education for the University because law students did little more than read, which meant classes could be large. Clinical training and classes in basic problem solving, however, require more personal attention and a smaller student to faculty ratio.

"The job market in law has gotten very bad," Sell explains. "We're finding that more and more students are having to go out on their own after graduation. As a result, we need to make sure that they have the basic skills to handle society's legal problems." Former Dean Mark Nordenberg, who joined the law faculty in 1977 and this year was named a distinguished professor of law by Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor, agrees with Sell. He says that not only are more students having to strike out on their own after graduation, but those who are hired by law firms must be immediately ready to contribute.

"Even for those who are going into 100- and 200-lawyer firms," says Nordenberg, "there isn't the leisurely program of additional professional development that existed 15 years ago." Some of the changes in the way law is taught in the law school, according to Norden-berg, began around that time he joined the faculty. During the late 1970s, he says, hardly a year went by when four or five new faculty members weren't added to the school. The infusion of new faculty blood brought new ideas and the increase in faculty size lightened teaching loads, so that faculty members had more time and opportunities to try different instructional methods, such as seminars.

The changes earned the school national recognition in the mid-1980s when the Law Review at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which ranks law schools on scholarship accomplishments, placed Pitt's School of Law among the top 20 law schools in the country. It has continued to appear among the top 20 schools ever since. "The first survey was conducted in 1983 or 1984 and we were one of the surprise schools in terms of our ranking, given the perception of us as a regional school," recalls Nordenberg. "And, I think, because we remain a relatively young faculty, we will retain our ranking. Really, many, many faculty members are just now coming into their most productive years and achieving the kinds of reputations that are going to stay with them for another 10, 15 or 20 years." Nine of the law school faculty also have won the chancellor's distinguished teaching award. "In a university with a couple thousand faculty members, you're talking about a pretty good slice of the pie," Nordenberg points out.

Along with the scholarship of the faculty, the reputation of a law school is based on the accomplishments and reputations of its graduates. In that area, Pitt's School of Law has been blessed, too, because a number of its graduates have gained national recognition in various areas.

"Of course, we've had a graduate who was governor and attorney general of the United States, Dick Thornburgh," Nordenberg says. "Orrin Hatch, another graduate, chairs the Senate judiciary committee. Joseph Weis is a Third Circuit Court judge and chaired perhaps the most important meeting on the federal court system held in the last several years." Robert Dauer, president judge of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, and Ralph Cappy and John Flaherty, members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, also are graduates of Pitt's law school.

Over the past dozen years, the law school's reputation has been enhanced by the diversity of the student body. Nordenberg says when he joined the faculty in 1977, only 17 percent of the student body was from outside of Pennsylvania. Today, that total has nearly doubled to 30-33 percent, most of whom will practice law outside Pennsylvania and so extend the reputation of Pitt's School of Law to other areas of the nation and even the world.

About the school as a whole, Nordenberg says:

"I think it remains a wonderful place. It has been a great professional home for generations of faculty and students." He says that one of the telling sign's of the school's strength is the extent to which both current students and recent graduates look back and favorably compare their preparation to that of students from other law schools. Nordenberg says that they are "very glad they went to the University of Pittsburgh law school and grateful for what they learned there. I think that is a true factor of a school's success."

–Mike Sajna

(Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will be published in the May 11 edition of the University Times.)

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