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History

"Lawyers in the Best Sense"
A Brief History of Cornell Law School

When Andrew Dickson White began to lay plans for a law department at Cornell University, he wrote that he wanted to educate “not swarms of hastily prepared pettifoggers, but a fair number of well-trained, large-minded, morally-based lawyers in the best sense...” He hoped graduates of the school would become “a blessing to the country, at the bar, on the bench, and in various public bodies.”

“We wish the new school success,” the Albany Law Journal noted acidly, when it learned of White’s plans, “but we do not expect it.” There were only a few law schools of any consequence in the country when Cornell’s department admitted its first students in 1887; most young men (they were almost always men) clerked in law offices, and studied on the job.

A high school diploma was not a prerequisite for entry to Cornell’s new department; tuition was $75 a year for three hours of classes a day. Students were thirsty for knowledge: “We had to drive them out of the library at night, and had a hard time answering their questions the next morning,” wrote faculty member Charles Evans Hughes. (Hughes, who later served as chief justice of the Supreme Court, then as secretary of state, said he’d “enjoyed teaching most of all.”)

The school’s growth mirrored that of legal schooling in the country; the number of law students in the U.S. tripled over the next ten years. The law department’s standards rose. By 1917, admission required at least two years of university education. World War I saw a halt in the stream of graduates, but students returned after the Armistice. Legal study was made a graduate degree in 1924, and the department of law became a professional school. In 1925, the trustees voted to give the new institution a new name: Cornell Law School.

By the end of World War II, law students who had fought overseas brought back internationally-scaled aspirations. In response, the Law School entered the arena of international legal studies in earnest.

The faculty grew in strength and numbers over the next thirty years; graduates who had prospered endowed professorships, and research flourished. Classes in legal history and philosophy found places in the catalogue of second- and third-year elective courses. So that students’ more practical legal training might not suffer, the Legal Aid Clinic was established to give students the opportunity to confront real legal problems in the real world; other clinics followed.

Today, students still come to Cornell Law School from nearby upstate New York communities; but most now come from much farther away, Florida, Tulsa, L.A., Santo Domingo, and China. When they graduate, they join major law firms, or corporate law departments; they work as public defenders, or help AIDS victims win discrimination cases; they teach law and publish books. And Andrew White’s dream has grown in a way he could hardly have anticipated, the school’s graduates serve not just this country, but several dozen others, as well. International graduates return to their own countries to posts in government and on the bench. The Albany Law Journal, thankfully, was wrong; the Law School’s success is undisputed.