Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, August 10, 2009


Page 7



Los Angeles Law Student Groups in 1890s Die Out, Then Re-Emerge




What had been hoped for among leaders of Los Angeles’ bar in 1891 was the establishment of a law school here that would supplement or supplant efforts of the Law Students’ Association. That nonprofit group, formed two years earlier, presented regular lectures on the law aimed at priming attendees for the oral bar exam before the Supreme Court. As it turned out, the association outlived the Southern California College of Law, in operation here from 1892-94.

Reasons why L.A.’s first law school failed were pointed out in a recent column which relied heavily on a May 10, 1935 USC master’s thesis by Julian Beck. The 30-year-old student went on to become a member of the state Assembly and of the Los Angeles Superior Court. I’ll quote from his manuscript again today, as well as from news articles of the time.

On Jan. 5, 1892, the private law school held its first session; unaffected by that, it was business-as-usual for the law students’ group when it staged a lecture on Jan. 27. Well, almost “as usual.” There had been three changes. One was in the name, the others were when and where the meetings would be held. An announcement in that morning’s Los Angeles Times says:

“The Law Student’s League will hold their meetings hereafter on Monday and Wednesday evenings of each week at 7:30 o’clock in Judge [J. W.] McKinley’s courtroom instead of Tuesday evenings as heretofore. This evening Hon. T. E. Gibbon will lecture on corporations.”

(Thomas E. Gibbon—whose title of “Hon.” stemmed from service in the Arkansas Legislature from 1884-85—later became publisher of the Los Angeles Herald and was partly responsible for the downfall of a corrupt Los Angeles mayor, Arthur Harper. Some of Harper’s misdeeds were chronicled in Gibbon’s Herald and, more prominently, in Edwin T. Earl’s Express. The mayor resigned in 1909.)

Gibbon became a regular lecturer before the law students’ group. An April 6, 1892 front-page item in the Los Angeles Daily Journal reads:

“T. E. Gibbon will begin his series of lectures on private corporations before the Law Students League at Judge McKinley’s courtroom this evening at 7:30.”

 The only mention of the law students’ group I’ve found in 1892 newspaper reports is in connection with Gibbon.

In those days, the concept of journalistic ethics had developed, but was, at most, in the puberty stage. It was often not possible to discern an actual news item—that is, one written by a reporter for the purpose of informing—from copy appearing in the news pages that was, in fact, a paid ad in news story format. Copy that someone had paid to be printed typically was intermingled in a column of short items including reports of, for example, arrests of vagrants or sentencing of persons convicted of minor offenses. It was obvious that neither vagrants nor sentenced misdemeanants would have paid to have the reports inserted, so those reports deflected suspicion from the inclusion of paid items.

The Times’ “City Briefs” column of Feb. 11, 1892 contains items—which no one would have paid to have trumpeted—that “[t]here are now thirty-nine men on the chain gang, the largest number at any one time in the history of the city” and “[t]here are undelivered telegrams at the Western Union Telegraph Office” for specified persons. This notation also appears in that column:

“The Los Angeles Law Students’ League listened to a very instructive lecture on ‘Municipal Corporations,’ given by T. E. Gibson, Esq., at Department Five last evening. The gentleman’s method of imparting knowledge on this branch was heartily appreciated by the league.”

In a column bearing the heading, “News Notes,” the Los Angeles Herald on April 15, 1892, says:

“Hon. T. E. Gibbon will lecture this evening at 7:30 o’clock at Judge McKinley’s court room, before the Law Students’ League. The subject will be Private Corporations. Those who heard his former lectures on Municipal Corporations will be pleased to see this announcement.”

That very wording appeared that evening in a purported news column in a rival newspaper, the Express. Given that it was highly unlikely the Express would have brazenly pilfered an item from the Herald with neither credit given nor rewriting, it must be assumed this was a paid notice.

Gibbon’s apparent quest for self-promotion has fortuitously  resulted in the existence of evidence as to the vitality of the law students’ group even after a local law school emerged.

Further evidence comes in the form of Beck’s manuscript, based largely on interviews with persons involved in early legal education efforts in Los Angeles.  

During 1892-95, Beck says, “the methods of education varied.” He elaborates:

“At time noted attorneys would give one or a series of lectures. At other times an attorney would serve as a quiz-master and, on still other occasions, the students themselves would act as lecturers, quiz-masters, or would have round-table discussions on text-book assignments.”

The future jurist points out that there was a “tendency for enthusiasm to die down in the group” after the 1889 charter members gained admittance to the bar. He tells of a renewed “call” for new members in January, 1891.

The reason the group—by then re-renamed “Law Students’ Assn.”—ended in the spring of 1895, Beck explains, is that “[t]he 1893-1894 group did not favor enrolling additional members in the Association, nor did they make any provisions for extending the life of the organization beyond the immediate needs of the members.”

As Beck tells it, some members gained admittance to the bar in 1894. “In 1895 when the surviving members succeeded in passing the bar examination,” he writes, “the organization came to a natural death.”

There were deaths and resurrections of law groups—including bar associations—in 19th century Los Angeles, when the population was small, the bar tiny, and the number of law students scant, was common.

After the “natural death” of the law students’ group, there was a quick rebirth. The March 31, 1895 issue of the Times includes the following report:

“The law students of this city are desirous of pursuing their studies in a more systematic manner, and under more favorable auspices than heretofore, and have organized themselves for the purpose. On Friday evening about twenty met and organized themselves as the Law Students of Los Angeles, and elected the following officers: Donald Barker, president; J. Hickox, vice-president; Charles E. Walk, secretary; and J. Kinley, treasurer. The newly-formed association adopted a constitution and bylaws, and as the Supervisors have granted it a room in the Courthouse, it starts out under fairly favorable auspices.”

(Donald Barker was admitted to practice in April, 1896, and went into partnership the next year with Frank Flint, who left the firm in 1905 when he became a U.S. senator. Barker and Flint in 1911 were appointed executors of an estate; Barker in 1948, at age 80, admitted on the stand that he had intermingled the estate’s funds with his own, and was ordered to pay back, with interest, $544,000. Flint, by then, was dead.)

Then came, in 1896, a new Law Students’ Association, the one that evolved into the Los Angeles Law School, progenitor of the law school at USC. As W.W. Robinson tells it in “Lawyers of Los Angeles”:

“In the fall of 1896 a group of serious minded law students met casually on a Los Angeles street corner. Chatting together, they decided on an informal organization for the interchange of ideas and to select a lawyer to act as their instructor….As a result of the street corner discussion, actual organization plans were worked out the evening of November 17, 1896, when 36 students met in Justice [D.C.] Morrison’s Police Court. They formed the ‘Law Students Association of Los Angeles’ with Roger Sherman Page as president and James Brown Scott (of later international law fame) as preceptor or instructor.”

(My “Reminiscing” column of Feb. 12 says: “While one might assume Scott was paid for his services as dean of the Los Angeles Law School, that isn’t clear. News reports at the time mentioned that instructors at the school, leading lawyers, donated their efforts.” Beck’s paper removes the uncertainty. It says Scott was paid “at a salary of $50 a month.”)

The History Department MA thesis recites that the 1896 association had no ties to previous law student groups and adds:

“In fact few, if any, of its members even knew of the existence of previous organizations.”

For that proposition, he cites an interview he had with Frederick W. Houser, who had been financial secretary of the Law Students’ Association and a prime promoter of the development of the law school.  Elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court in the 1906 election I’ve been writing about, Houser had resigned from that office more than 12 years before the interview took place; he was soon to serve on the Court of Appeal (1935-37), then on the state Supreme Court (1937-42).

The thesis continues that members of the 1896 group “firmly believed that their organization was the first of its kind in the county and that it would meet ‘a want that has long been felt in this part of the state.’ ” That quote is from a manuscript by Page, who had been the first secretary of the new law school.

The assertion by USC Law School Dean Justin Miller in his article in the Feb 1, 1930 issue of the Los Angeles Times that “[u]ntil 1896 there was no organized effort in law instruction in Southern California” is indisputably wrong,  but undoubtedly uttered in the belief it was so.

Aside from the law students’ association in downtown Los Angeles, there was a separate group of the same sort elsewhere in the county. As I noted in a “Reminiscing” column on Jan. 22, “Such a group had been active in Pasadena by the early 1890s.”

An examination of the archives of the Los Angeles Times shows that the association was in existence by 1891. The newspaper’s issue of May 3, 1891, contains a report on proceedings the day before in the Pasadena City Council…including this:

“Benjamin W. Hahn petitioned in behalf of the law students’ association of Pasadena for the use of the Recorder’s court for the trial of moot cases. The communication set forth that the trials are conducted in an orderly manner and that the association will be responsible for any expense that may occur during the progress of such trials. The petition was granted.”

Hahn had read law in the offices of Medcalfe & McLachlan. Alexander R. Metcalfe was apparently mentor to the Pasadena Law Students’ Association. James McLachlan was presently Los Angeles County’s district attorney and would later be a member of Congress. Hahn was to serve in the state Senate from 1903-07; he and his brother, future Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Edwin Hahn, formed the still-existing Pasadena law firm of Hahn & Hahn on Sept. 1, 1899.

(In case you’re wondering, no, the late Kenneth Hahn, Los Angeles County’s longtime supervisor, was not related.)

A March 22, 1892, item says that a “meeting of the law class will be held this evening at Mr. Metcalfe’s office.” The word “class” apparently refers to the association.

An announcement appearing on  Nov. 27, 1894 says, simply: “Pasadena law students have formed a club for their common good.” It would appear that in Pasadena, as in Los Angeles, as members of a law student association became admitted to the bar or gave up on that quest, there were reorganizations.

There’s another pithy item in the Times’ issue of May 15, 1895, reading: “The law students of Pasadena are arranging to give a banquet May 22.” A May 24 report of the dinner is expansive. It begins:

“As one of the duties of judges and members of the bar generally is, as is well known, the eating of good dinners and the making of good speeches, the law students of Pasadena have gone into preliminary training for their high calling, and on Wednesday night demonstrated that they were not neglecting the proper education in those important particulars. Twelve members of the Law-students Association of this place partook of a banquet at the Painter, which was heartily enjoyed by those participating, although it rendered them rather listless in their perusal of ‘Coke Blackstone’ and other ponderous tomes [the next day].”

The story relates that the guest of honor , who had just been admitted to the bar, was Thomas W. Robinson. He was toasted and “gracefully rendered his thanks for the honor,” the article says.

(Robinson secured steady employment. He served as librarian of the Los Angeles County Law Library from 1896-38.)

Reports on doings of the Pasadena organization appeared now and then. The last such item is found in the  Aug. 9, 1896 edition of the Times, advising that Pasadena’s city attorney had addressed what was by then called the “Law Students’ League.”

In the next column aimed at demystifying the history of early legal education in California, I’ll look at the question of whether USC’s claim is true that when its law school opened, the only other law school in the state was Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.


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