Thursday, January 22, 2009
USC Law School Begins as Bar Review Course
By ROGER M. GRACE
In its embryonic form 112 years ago, the USC Gould School of Law was, in essence, a bar review course. It was presided over by Los Angeles attorney J.B. Scott.
The birth of the law school, itself—the first in Southern California and the second in the state—took place on June 12, 1897, upon the filing of articles of incorporation for “Los Angeles Law School.” But conception occurred on Nov. 17, 1896 when the “Law Students’ Association of Los Angeles” was formed.
A “law student” then was simply someone studying law, whether in an attorney’s office, through a correspondence course, or on his or her own. The objective was to amass such knowledge of specified subjects as to be able to respond intelligently to questions shot out by members of the California Supreme Court who administered an oral bar exam.
The assembly of law students which evolved into a law school was not the first such group in the area. Just as there were false starts in forming a local bar association, there were ill-starred efforts to get law students together.
A July 4, 1889 report in the Los Angeles Times begins:
“The Law Students’ Association met last night in the courtroom of Department No. 4 to further perfect their own organization, and to be addressed by Judge Walter Van Dyke upon ‘The Study of the Law.’ ”
One of the law students present was D.C. Morrison.
Three months later—Oct. 14, 1889 to be precise—Morrison was among 13 young men grilled by the high court jurists. (Among others was Isidor Dockweiler, profiled here last year.) Morrison was admitted to the bar and, in 1894, gained election, on the Republican ticket, as a Police Court justice in Los Angeles.
The law students’ group that met in Van Dyke’s courtroom in 1889 evaporated, but the concept didn’t. Such a group had been active in Pasadena by the early 1890s. And Morrison hadn’t forgotten what had been attempted in L.A.
A history of USC put together in 1930 by Rockwell D. Hunt, titled “The First Half Century,” recites that this announcement was issued in 1896:
“It is in the interest of the Law Students of this city that they unite their efforts toward the formation of a society for mutual improvement. The society should be thoroughly and intelligently organized and permanent in its nature. It is suggested that all law students interested in the movement meet at the Court Room of Judge Morrison, on Tuesday evening, November 17th, to perfect an organization.”
“James Brown Scott, later Dean of the University of Illinois and at present a world renowned authority on International Law, was selected as preceptor [instructor], and may thus be regarded as the founder of the School of Law of the University of Southern California.”
A Los Angeles Herald article appearing the morning after the meeting notes that “the very satisfactory number of thirty-six” students showed up. It says:
“Messrs. James B. Scott and Curtis D. Wilbur addressed the assemblage, setting forth their various experiences with law associations. Mr. Scott expressed the opinion that if the students moved cautiously he had no doubt the a law school of a permanent character would be established in this section.”
(Wilbur worked his way up the state judicial ladder to become chief justice of California in 1923…resigning the next year to assume the post of secretary of the Navy…later being appointed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
That first meeting of the law students took place on a Tuesday night. Another get-together occurred the next Tuesday night. A Nov. 25, 1896 Times article says:
“Last evening some twenty-two members of the Law Students’ Association met at Justice Morrison’s courtroom in order to perfect a permanent organization. A simple but effective constitution was adopted, permanent officers were elected and a permanent instructor chosen to conduct the studies of the year….Another meeting will be held next Tuesday evening at 7:30 o’clock in Justice Morrison’s courtroom, when the course of instruction will begin….William M. Hilliker, room 334 Wilcox Building, is the secretary and will receive applications for membership.”
Room 334 in the Wilcox Building was the office of the law firm of Hatch, Miller & Brown. A “city directory” shows that Hilliker worked as a stenographer for the firm.
By Dec. 1, there were 52 members of the law students group. Hunt notes in his 1930 book that “instruction was confined to those subjects for admission to the State Bar.”
In the early part of 1897, sessions were held in Red Men’s Hall at 317 S. Main Street. The building was owned by a fraternal society (the second oldest in the United States, after the Masons), the “Order of Red Men.” It was comprised of white males whose chapters were called “tribes.” No issue of “political correctness” then emerged.
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