For years, getting a law degree has been seen as sort of a default career solution for talented young people. Becoming a lawyer has traditionally meant solid employment prospects, as well as a potential route to a career in politics or business. But recently, the high supply of young lawyers has outpaced demand, and the resulting drop in career prospects has meant declining law school enrollment. Some schools have responded with discounts and tuition freezes designed to attract highly qualified students.
When did law schools become such a fixture in the training of elite Americans? Writing in the American Bar Association Journal in 1978, Mark T. Flahive says it happened quite suddenly, when the US was just emerging as an independent nation.
Prior to the American Revolution, lawyers in the colonies came up through an apprenticeship system, much like members of other trades. Prospective attorneys, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, served as secretaries and law clerks to practicing lawyers for three years before an oral examination to determine admittance to the bar. Flahive describes the system as “moderately effective and highly economical.” It was also inconsistent. Adams complained that his apprenticeship didn’t adequately prepare him for his profession, while Jefferson apparently received a better education with a “closely supervised curriculum.”
But it wasn’t the mixed results of apprenticeships that spurred the creation of law schools, it was the Revolutionary War. When the war began, many patriotic lawyers closed up shop and went out to fight. On the Tory side, many closed down permanently, or found themselves banned from the profession after independence. Limited apprenticeship opportunities remained for eager students.
Sensing an opportunity, a few academically oriented attorneys “converted their offices into law schools,” Flahive writes. The first of these was Tapping Reeve, a former Princeton instructor who founded what became the Litchfield Law School in his home office. Litchfield alumni went on to form rival schools, including the precursors to Yale Law School, Cincinnati Law School, and George Washington University Law School. Litchfield also served as a model for Harvard Law School.
Meanwhile, the revolution also spurred the need for more lawyers. The emergent government required officials with legal training, confiscation of Tory property demanded litigation, and economic changes led to more debt collection. Jefferson also pushed for the training of more lawyers, helping to establish a professorship for that purpose at the College of William and Mary in 1779.
“Jefferson believed that legal training was essential to political success,” Flahive writes. “He intended for this school to produce the future leaders of Virginia and the United States. He wrote to James Madison that ‘This single school by throwing from time to time new hands well principled and well informed into the Legislature will be of infinite value.’”
Whether he was right about the value of highly trained young lawyers and politicians, the current situation at law schools demonstrates that the demand for law degrees is decidedly not infinite.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated to correct a typographical error.