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Emory Law Centennial: 1916-1940s

The Early Years of Emory Law

A Focus on Quality:

The mission of the new law school at Emory was to raise the quality of legal education in the South. Emory would not seek to produce the most lawyers, but would try to produce the best by providing a legal education that emphasized ethics, a higher sense of purpose, and the most honorable ideals of the profession. The school was to be “a center of legal thinking and research” and “a powerful force for professional improvement.”

Original Law School Building, 1916

The first session began on September 27, 1916 with twenty-seven students, two full-time professors and six part-time faculty members. The first faculty had earned their law degrees from prestigious schools in the Northeast; the library contained more than 5,000 volumes; and the cost of tuition was $125 for the first year.

The first full-time, permanent dean was Samuel Cole Williams, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee. During Dean Williams’ administration (1919-1924), the faculty grew to five full-time members and the school admitted an even greater number of students from out-of-state. In 1920 the Law School was admitted to membership in the Association of American Law Schools. At the time, it was the only member of the AALS in Georgia. And in 1923 Emory Law was one of only four schools in the Southeast to receive a “Class A” rating from the American Bar Association.

A Resilient Law School:

The entrance of the United States into World War I in April of 1917, six months after the school’s opening, affected the law school more severely than other Emory schools because most law students were of draft age and weren’t eligible for exemptions as were medical students and theology students. However, classes continued even though the number of students fell to two in the Fall of 1918. After WWI ended enrollment increased steadily.

During the Great Depression the Law School assisted students by establishing an externship program in 1935 so students could gain real-world experience working part-time with several Atlanta area law firms while going to school.

Enrollment also fell precipitously during World War II but rather than temporarily close the law school, in 1941 the school began offering a four-year, part-time evening program so that students could also support the war effort. The number of students in this program was soon roughly equal to that of the traditional day program. Enrollment increased dramatically once the war ended and veterans seized the opportunity to obtain a legal education on the G.I. Bill.

Law Faculty, 1923

An Innovative Approach to Legal Education:

The first faculty members did not believe the standard textbook method of instruction was the best way to develop students’ ability in analysis and application of the law to actual situations so, from the beginning, they chose the still controversial case study method of instruction instead (introduced by Professor Langdell at Harvard in 1870).

Beginning in 1928 continuing education was made available for law faculty members allowing all five to each receive a one-year fellowship to study law at Harvard. Four of these faculty members went on to earn the S.J.D. degree.

In 1935 the school began offering the juris doctor degree to students entering with a four-year college degree (prior to 1935 the bachelor of laws was the only degree offered). The J.D. degree required maintenance of a higher grade point average and independent study under the direction of a law faculty advisor.