University of Pennsylvania Law School

The University of Pennsylvania Law School officially traces its origins to a series of lectures delivered in 1790 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson and former major architect of the Constitution, who had been named Professor of Law that year. However, the lectures were never completed, and his highly theoretical course (as opposed to practical legal education) was more an isolated instance than a true founding.

The second abortive attempt at a Penn law department was made in 1817, under the direction of Charles Willing Hare. Once again, the lectures went unfinished, reportedly because of Dr. Hare's "loss of reason" (possibly Alzheimer's disease).

At various times, courses in international law were offered in the College -- the liberal arts school of the University -- but no further attempt was made to set up a separate law unit until 1850, when George Sharswood, President Judge of the District Court for the City and County of Philadelphia, was appointed Professor of Law to teach a two-year course. In 1852, a Faculty of Law was established with the addition of two more instructors. That year the department also began issuing the degree of LL.B.

At the time, entry into law in Philadelphia, as elsewhere in the country, was primarily through apprenticeship in the offices of an established attorney -- students paid for the privilege, and it was a substantial source of income from many prominent lawyers. Schools of law were few, some independent; some, as at Penn, only loosely tied to a college or university. Though the Harvard Law School had been in operation since 1817, and the University of Virginia Law School since the 1820s, nowhere was a law degree either demanded or expected for admission to the bar. Indeed, such a degree was seldom even considered by the courts as time served.

At Penn, lectures in the Law School (as it was generally known, though the name remained "Department of Law" well into the 20th century) were initially delivered by practicing attorneys in their off hours, generally the evening. Tuition was paid directly to the lecturer -- and was the only entrance requirement. The 1854-55 department catalog carries this notation, which remained unchanged for 29 years: "Students are not examined for matriculation, nor is it possible to require, peremptorily, a college degree, or any previous line of study. This must be left to circumstances, to the views of the student, and to the influences which control him." A law degree was not a graduate or supplementary one, but the rough equivalent of an undergraduate B.A.

The courses, unlike Wilson's lectures, were grounded mostly in legal specifics, especially those pertaining to the laws of Pennsylvania. As the number of instructors and courses expanded, they covered such subjects as property, admiralty law, equity jurisprudence, and international and constitutional law. Yet even here, the courses were more theoretical than practical. No course in "practice" -- the actual nitty-gritty of functioning as a lawyer -- became required until the turn of the century, and continued to flow in and out of favor.

The instructional system remained fundamentally the same, with the addition of some fine-tuning and more rigorous graduation requirements, until 1888. Along the way, the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania courts came to accept Law School courses as equivalent to time spent in apprenticeship for admission to the bar. The major change was physical -- the move of the University in 1872 from downtown Philadelphia across theSchuylkill River into West Philadelphia, a daring look to the future.

The revolution of 1888 achieved two major advances. First, the "proprietary model," under which the instructors basically owned and operated their courses independently, with the blessing of the University, was abolished, and the professors became salaried employees, though still teaching only part time. Second, the two-year course was extended to three, following the lead of Harvard and a few other law schools. From acting primarily as a mill to produce lawyers for the Pennsylvania courts, the Law School had become a national player. Yet, for some years to come, the vast majority of its instructors remained not only Philadelphia lawyers, but graduates of the School themselves.

Its firm establishment as a national school, came only with the appointment, in 1896, of William Draper Lewis as the School's dean and first full-time faculty member. A major figure in the development of the 20th-century American legal system through his 18-year deanship and later in his 25-year directorship of the American Law Institute, Lewis has, unfortunately, been relegated to an historical footnote.

A man of unflagging energy, he strengthened both the curriculum and the faculty and oversaw the opening of the new Law School building in 1900 (which remained unnamed for 70 years), then considered the largest structure devoted solely to legal education in the country, if not the world. A massive Georgian structure of brick and limestone, designed to be virtually fireproof, it incorporated the latest in current technology, including an elaborate heating and air system driven by a 10-foot fan. Unfortunately, this system never worked properly and became a symbol of mechanical hubris that dogged the School for the next half century.

Both the School and the University suffered chronically from underfunding, despite the leadership of University Provost (equivalent then to President) Charles Custis Harrison, one of the wealthiest Philadelphia businessmen, who donated much of his own money to University educational projects. Through loans and donations, Lewis assembled one of the finest law libraries in the world and made it the School's educational and physical centerpiece, under the direction of librarian Margaret Klingelsmith, a School graduate. The first and for many years only woman to direct an American law school library, Klingelsmith went at her job with the same fierce dedication as Lewis, even taking trips to England to secure rare material.

Lewis bent his efforts to hiring full-time instructors whenever possible and slowly weaned the school from its almost total dependence on its own graduates for faculty members. His tenure ended in 1914, when he made an ill-advised run for state governor on the Progressive Republican ticket, though he remained on the faculty until 1924.

His successor as dean was William Ephraim Mikell, a Virginian who was one of Lewis's first hires. Though not a man, like Lewis, much interested in administrative detail, he expanded the reach of the School in hiring, making the faculty for the first time as national as the student body and the curriculum attempted to be. However, the University as a whole was drifting into one of its recurring periods of stagnation, and funding was a continual program. Worse, World War I reduced the student body to such low levels that the School almost closed its doors.

The prosperity of the 1920s alleviated the worst of the financial problems -- temporarily, as it turned out. When Mikell relinquished the deanship in 1929, faculty salaries had crept close to the national average and several new faculty members had been hired. His last years also saw the first tentative steps toward admissions standards beyond that of an undergraduate degree. The acceptance of women and African-American students (always few in number) begun with Lewis continued, and Jews made significant advances. (By contrast, women were not admitted to Yale or Harvard until well into the 20th century, and Yale's dean made openly anti-Semitic remarks.) Curiously, the student body had become more insular, less national.

Still, the future looked excellent for Herbert Funk Goodrich, the first dean who was neither a School faculty member or a Philadelphian. A Minnesota native who had taught at Midwestern law schools, he was the behind-the-scenes choice of former dean Lewis, having worked closely with him at the American Law Institute.

Goodrich was almost immediately beset by the Depression. In the early 1930s the University was in violent retrenchment; by 1934 faculty salaries across the University were cut by a mandatory 10%, and the size of the School's student body was in decline. The now-aging building systems, problematic from the start, were near collapse. Only one new faculty member was added between 1929 and 1936. About this time, the University initiated a five-year fundraising campaign and finances began slowly to inch back toward "normal."

Yet the late 1930s were not a shining era for the Law School. Though several excellent additions were made to the faculty, Goodrich's drive for curriculum reform bore little fruit, in part because of factional squabbling among the faculty. A reliance on an ever-expanding list of rules and regulations replaced a former individual (if often seat-of-the-pants) concern for students and education. The student/faculty ratio remained high by national standards, and the library -- Lewis's crown jewel -- had become almost moribund, without even a full-time head librarian.

Goodrich was appointed to the Federal District Court in 1940. Twenty-five-year faculty veteran Edwin Keedy, a close colleague of former dean Mikell, was named acting dean, assuming the full title as World War II loomed. Keedy, though a good administrator, was, in effect, a placeholder while the School slid through another wartime period of minimal attendance, minimal funding and a perceived lowering of standards to meet the emergency.

The end of the war brought an explosion of the student body fueled by returning veterans. It also brought a new dean, Earl Harrison, the first in the 20th century without an academic background. Although a Penn Law graduate, he had spent his years in private practice and government work in the Roosevelt administration, most notably as head of the Immigration Service, which he streamlined extensively.

Harrison served a brief (1945-1948) term as dean and has been generally ignored by historians and by the School. Yet he was largely responsible for putting the School back on together, attempting changes in curriculum (most unsuccessful), untangling the complicated grading system, and hiring several of the faculty's leading lights for the next 20 years. These faculty members started their careers under Harrison's successor, Owen J. Roberts, whose national stature brought renewed notice to the School but also, unfortunately, absorbed some of the credit which rightfully belonged to Harrison. Harrison left the School apparently over a disagreement about the method of hiring the University's new president, former political "boy wonder" (and later perennial presidential candidate) Harold Stassen.

Roberts came to Penn Law as a graduate from 50 years previous, a faculty member from the turn of the century, a nationally recognized lawyer and administrator, and a distinguished Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He appears to have served as dean without pay.

Like Lewis, his mentor of decades past, he reinforced the Penn Law ideal of the dean as "first among equals." He pushed hard -- and more successfully than Harrison -- for an upgraded and modernized curriculum. He also introduced admissions testing as an early adopter the Law School Admissions Test. He attempted to right the grand old building's wrongs, but these were not fully overcome for many years (mostly because of lack of endowment and other guaranteed funding). During his also brief (1948-1951) stint, he managed to extract guarantees from the University administration to bring faculty salaries up to par.

The man who followed Roberts, Jefferson B. Fordham, signaled the School's break with the Philadelphia old guard, as the first dean who was neither a member of the department, a graduate of the School, or a protege of Lewis. Fordham came to Penn from a similar position at Ohio State and served for 18 years (the same length of time as Lewis), 1952-1970.

It was a fortunate time for an educator, for government funding and support from the Ford Foundation was beginning to flow freely across the entire range of higher education. Fordham made the best of this, reinforcing the faculty, setting up the School's first institutes for legal research, and planning the first new construction in more than a half century. The complexity of the School's administration -- previously fairly seat-of-the-pants -- increased steadily. And the method of grading students went through one of its periodic upheavals. However, the University's plunge into yet another financial debacle following Stassen's departure in 1953 put hiring and salary guarantees temporarily on the back burner.

Perhaps more than any other dean, Fordham involved the faculty in decision making at every level. Though he possessed none of Lewis's or Roberts' personal flare, a scrupulous sense of ethics and democracy was his hallmark. For much of his tenure, a parade of book-length committee reports supported extensive tinkering with and expansion of the curriculum, especially in the areas of writing and student practice. Never before had both faculty and students been so involved in high-profile activism on the local and national scene.

Early on, Fordham set a goal of doubling the faculty size to lower the faculty-student ratio. Again, he was thwarted by Penn's limited finances, but on the whole he put together -- and retained-- one of the finest teams ever to teach at Penn Law.

The physical expansion of the School during Fordham's time was a more mixed blessing. Despite outside support, the dormitories and dining hall constructed half a block from the main building were underfunded, leading close, cramped, uncomfortable buildings. However, the two wings connecting them to Lewis's masterwork provided the first new faculty and administrative offices of modern times, along with a bright, inviting student lounge. Fordham's era also saw the first fairly successful attempt to revamp the main building's systems. The library was also expanded, but at the expense of some of the building's interior architectural detail.

Again, lack of funding hindered the library's acquisitions, but Fordham, unlike some of his predecessors, worked actively to restore it. The results were uneven, but the quality of the librarians was greatly improved.

The end of Fordham's deanship coincided with an increase in student activism, both anti-Vietnam War and pro-minority, pro-women. Fordham and most of the faculty showed themselves remarkably responsive to student demands for input into curriculum and other decision making. Black students in particular began to lobby for greater presence and recognition and, for the most part, the School granted it. Fordham took an active stance on raising the number of women and minorities in the student body and hired the first woman faculty member.

By the time of Fordham's resignation, the School stood near the top nationally, judged on the basis of both faculty and students.

However, the general sense of unrest at colleges nationally and the fracturing of the faculty over some of the more revolutionary changes -- a splintering held in check by Fordham's sense of balance -- brought on one of the most chaotic periods in Penn Law's history.

In slightly over a decade, the School shuffled through four deans, once again, all faculty members: Bernard Wolfman; Louis Pollak, former dean of the Yale Law School; James Freedman, later president of Dartmouth College; and Robert Mudheim, a foremost financial and corporate law scholar. To make matters worse, the University in the early 1970s faced a financial situation so severe that it briefly considered dropping undergraduate education altogether.

Among bright spots were the continuing expansion and strengthening of the curriculum and the increasing presence of women and African-Americans in the student body and on the faculty. Nonetheless, only with the elevation of Mundheim in 1982 was Penn Law really put back on track.

Mundheim’s seven-year tenure provided the School with administrative stability, and he stumped aggressively for funding for faculty salaries, financial aid, technology, and facilities. The student body continued to advance in the rankings, and women approached parity in numbers with men. Yet the faculty, though strengthened by several lasting additions, remained something of the revolving door it had become a few years earlier.

A native of Hamburg, Germany, Mundheim began a significant commitment to bringing visiting European scholars to the School. For the first time, Penn Law was becoming an international law school. The clinical program was strengthened to become perhaps the leading one in the nation in terms of both time spent by the students and breadth of community involvement.

With the planning of Tanenbaum Hall, the School undertook the most significant building program since Lewis's day. Opened in 1993, it provided major new classrooms, space for student journals, a dining area, and a modern home for the library in an airy, friendly setting. Perhaps most important, under librarian Elizabeth Kelly -- a match for Margaret Klingelsmith in drive and concern -- modern computer technology became a central consideration.

By the end of Mundheim’s tenure, the most significant divisions within the faculty appear to have healed, and Penn Law was in solid shape.

Mundheim was followed by Colin Diver, the dean of Boston University Law School and the first outsider to serve as Penn Law dean since Fordham. Under Diver, a superb fundraiser, the student body continued to represent the cream of the academic crop while growing steadily more diverse demographically. The faculty expanded at a rapid rate, most remarkably in legal theory and legal philosophy, culminating in the establishment of the Institute for Law and Philosophy in 1998.

A series of new academic concentrations took shape: joint teaching with other University schools, especially Wharton, dual-degree programs, and submatriculation. The number of courses increased enormously, clinical work continued to increase, and graduate studies were put on firmer footing, reaching out to foreign students in the LL.M. program.

Last but not least, Lewis's building became what it was envisioned to be in the first place. Through a series of restorations funded by major gifts, the renamed Silverman Hall was fully restored it's original grandeur (including something approaching its original, strangely garish color scheme, influenced by archaeological finds) and enhanced with state-of-the-art technology. At last, the classrooms and offices had a fully predictable supply of heat.

Diver resigned the deanship in 1999 and was succeeded the following year by faculty member Michael Fitts, a native of West Philadelphia whose family has a long history of involvement with the University.


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