Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, October 21, 2010


Page 15



Petchner Is Incorporator in 1901 of Law School Now USC’s




Attorney and political reform advocate William C. Petchner was active in early legal education in Los Angeles, being an organizer in 1901 of the law school now owned by the University of Southern California, and an initial instructor at it. He also taught at an earlier law school in which USC claims—errantly, it would seem—to have roots.

Too, he knew something of what appears to have been the first law school in Southern California (and the second in the state, behind Hastings). During at least part of the time it was in operation, he was studying law in the conventional way—reading books in a law office—as well as participating in a study group.

It’s no wonder that Julian Beck, a graduate student in USC’s History Department, tapped Petchner as a resource for his thesis, presented on May 10, 1935, on “The History of Legal Education in the County of Los Angeles,” a paper to which I’ve made reference in past columns. (Beck went on to become a Democratic member of the state Assembly from 1943-53; was appointed as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge by Republican Gov. Earl Warren; resigned to perform briefly as legislative secretary to Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. in 1959; and was placed on the Superior Court by Brown in 1959, serving until 1974.)

The earliest of the law schools in the southern part of the state appears to have been Southern California College of Law. Petchner was 21 when it opened on Jan. 5, 1892. Though desirous of becoming a lawyer, he apparently found reason not to attend classes there.

Beck cites Petchner as being among those who told him that one reason for the school’s demise in 1894 was the lack of leadership of its founder, John W. Mitchell. Petchner is quoted as saying that what Mitchell was best known for within the legal community was his “flashy” mode of dress.

Another reason for the failure, according to Petchner and others interviewed by Beck, was its regrettable tie with Los Angeles Business College. The “college” was actually a trade school, teaching such skills as penmanship and shorthand.

Petchner, according to “Who’s Who in the Pacific Southwest” (1913), was a student at Los Angeles Business College in 1891.

Ascribing the information to Petchner, Beck writes that the law school “was not looked upon with favor by the bar and was placed upon probation by it from the opening date.”

The study group in which Petchner participated was known as a “law students’ association.” It wasn’t the first such group here, nor the last. It was in existence from 1893-94 and was dissolved in 1895, the year Petchner was admitted to practice.

Members of the group undertook an organized study of law to prepare them for the oral bar examination before the Supreme Court.

A new law students association, formed on Nov. 17, 1896, for that same purpose, decided to expand its function. The students developed their group in 1897 into the Los Angeles Law School, which soon became loosely affiliated with USC. Petchner, despite his neophyte status as a lawyer, became a teacher there.

Although the USC Gould School of Law contends on its website that it was founded in 1896, tracing its origin to the law students’ association, a differing view might well be taken, as I’ve pointed out before.

What USC does not take note of is that the Los Angeles Law School terminated its operations at the end of the fall term in 1901, and another unrelated entity—Los Angeles College of Law—was incorporated on Sept. 7, 1901. The new institution similarly linked up with USC and in 1904 was absorbed into it.

Petchner was an incorporator of the 1901 law school and, with the other six incorporators, assumed the role of a trustee. Additionally, he joined the faculty there.

The Los Angeles Times’ issue of Sept. 29, 1901 shows that Los Angeles College of Law would open the next day and that Petchner would be teaching pleading and practice.

Students from the defunct law school enrolled at the new one, at its new location. Beck’s paper quotes Petchner as telling him that George Sanders, founder and dean of the Los Angeles College of Law, succeeded in “putting new blood into an old carcass.” But actually, there was no transfer of assets from the defunct law school to the new one; the old one died, the new one took birth.

USC Gould School of Law does not acknowledge that birth, nor credit Petchner as one of its founders, preferring to cling to its claim of an 1896 founding date.

In legal education, as in law practice and political reform, Petchner displayed proficiency and dedication. In each of his endeavors, he played significant roles, rubbed shoulders with luminaries, but did not acquire leadership positions and generally stayed out of the limelight.


Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company


MetNews Main Page     Reminiscing Columns