Published on Mar 27, 2017

For the past several months I’ve been receiving notices of my 30th law school reunion. I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987. I like to think that’s a pretty big deal, but it turns out that my reunion is far from the most important thing happening at Harvard in 2017: the Law School will also celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding in 1817. This is a good occasion to share some interesting facts about the School and a few of my own memories as well.

A Brief History of Harvard Law School

Harvard Law School is the oldest continually operating law school in the United States. William & Mary Law School opened in 1779, but closed due to the American Civil War, not reopening until 1920. The University of Maryland School of Law was chartered in 1816, but did not open for classes until 1824 (it also closed during the Civil War).

Harvard Law School was established through a bequest from the estate of Isaac Royall, a wealthy Antiguan plantation owner and slaveholder who immigrated to Boston. Royall’s coat of arms, with its three stacked wheat sheaves, was used as the school’s crest from 1936 until 2016, when the School decided to replace it (with a coat of arms yet to be agreed upon).

By 1827, the school, with only one faculty member, was struggling. Enrollment remained low through the 19th century as university legal education was considered to be of marginal benefit compared to apprenticeships in legal practice. Nathan Dane, a prominent alumnus of Harvard College, endowed the Dane Professorship of Law, insisting that it be given to then-U. S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. For a short time, the school was known as Dane Law School.

Justice Story’s belief in the need for an elite law school based on merit and dedicated to public service helped build the school’s reputation. Soon illustrious students became a hallmark of Harvard Law School. The Class of 1845 included Rutherford B. Hayes, who later served as the 19th President of the United States. In 1869, George Lewis Ruffin became the first African-American graduate of Harvard Law School.

In the 1870s, Dean Christopher Langdell transformed American legal education by introducing what has become the standard first-year curriculum for American law schools, including classes in contracts, property, torts, criminal law, and civil procedure. More significantly, Dean Langdell also developed the case method of teaching law, which quickly became the dominant pedagogical model at U.S. law schools and dominates to this day. Critics at first defended the traditional lecture method because it was faster and made fewer demands on faculty and students. But advocates said the case method had a sounder theoretical basis in logic and science. From its founding in 1900, the Association of American Law Schools promoted the case method in law schools that sought accreditation. Today, Langdell Hall is home to the Harvard Law School Library, the most extensive academic law library in the world.

The Harvard Law Review, one of the most highly cited university law reviews, was first published in 1887. The Harvard Law Review Association also publishes The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, the most widely followed authority for legal citation formats in the United States.

In 1950, women enrolled as students for the first time. By 2014 Harvard Law School admitted an entering class that was 50 percent women. Among the nine women who enrolled at HLS in 1956 was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would go on to become an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.

The HLS Class of 1960 included: Michael Dukakis, who would twice serve as Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and who became the Democratic nominee for President in 1988; and Antonin Scalia, who would later become an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. The Class of 1963 included Janet Reno, who would become the first woman Attorney General of the United States, serving between 1993 and 2001 during the Clinton Administration. The Class of 1961 included Anthony M. Kennedy, who would join the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. Justice Stephen Breyer was a member of the Class of 1964.

In the 1970s, Harvard Law School gained additional popular notoriety because of John Jay Osborne’s 1971 novel The Paper Chase (and the 1973 film adaptation), and Scott Turow’s 1977 novel One L.

Harvard Law School-educated lawyers have played prominent roles in education, government, and industry. In 1973, during the Nixon Administration, HLS Professor Archibald Cox took a leave from the faculty to serve as special prosecutor in the Watergate matter. In a showdown with Nixon over subpoenas for tapes of Nixon’s secretly recorded conversations, Nixon ordered that Cox be fired. In what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, both Harvard Law School graduates, resigned after refusing to fire Cox. Subsequent events led to the Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling rejecting Nixon’s claim of executive privilege in U.S. v. Nixon. The president resigned not long afterwards in 1974.

The Class of 1975 included Mitt Romney, who would later become Governor of Massachusetts and then the Republican nominee for President in 2012. The Class of 1979 included John Roberts, Jr., who would later become the 17th Chief Justice of the United States. The Class of 1984 included Loretta Lynch, who would later become the first African-American woman to be Attorney General of the United States.

In 1990, Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Obama, who graduated from HLS in 1991, represented Illinois in the U.S Senate, and in 2008 became the 44th President of the United States, and the first African-American president. First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama graduated from HLS in the Class of 1988.

In 2003, Elena Kagan ’86 became the first woman Dean of Harvard Law School. In 2010, she was nominated and then confirmed and sworn in as the 112th Justice (and only the fourth female Justice) of the U.S. Supreme Court. A majority of the current Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court attended Harvard Law School.

A Few Memories of My Own

Thirty years is a long time, and many of my memories of attending Harvard Law School have faded. I do recall that when I learned that I had been admitted (during my senior year of college), I initially decided to attend the University of Michigan Law School instead. I reasoned that it was cheaper, and closer to home. My father convinced me that I couldn’t turn down Harvard, and I’m grateful for his wise counsel in that matter (and many, many others).

My main recollection of law school is the avalanche of reading and briefing of cases, punctuated by the terror of being called upon in class. I found the experience to be far more challenging than anything I had faced previously. Luckily for me I became part of a study group that became a support network of sorts for the following three years. My first year professors were impressive and entertaining, and I managed to get through having learned some basics about the law. Most of my classmates were far ahead of me in terms of practical knowledge about the legal profession, including the various types of law firms and the requirements for judicial clerkships. I was intimidated by how many of my classmates had mapped out a career path with singular focus, while I was  fully occupied trying to get through all of the reading.

When I returned for my second year I was offered a post teaching a Legal Writing section for the Civil Procedure course. It paid well, so I took it and learned to juggle that with my new group of courses. I kept that position through my third year, when the focus of most students became selecting a post-graduation job. The economy was booming in the mid-1980s, so all of us could choose from among many offers. By then I had decided to return to Detroit, and I took a position with Butzel Long, the firm where I had worked as a summer associate after my second year of law school.  That path eventually led me to The Miller Law Firm, where I work with an amazing group of litigators and friends. I count my blessings every day.


By: Kevin F. O’Shea