Making It Legal at USC

The USC Law School entering class, in 1914.

Photo courtesy of USC Law School

Los Angeles without lawyers: The idea may seem laughable, but it was once a very real concern. Only a century ago, university-educated attorneys had to be imported to handle the legal affairs of this booming frontier town of 100,000 people. With the nearest law school 400 miles to the north, a generation of Angelenos trained themselves for the bar the same way they might prepare to become blacksmiths: through apprenticeship. But while an ill-prepared smithy could ruin a horse, an ill-prepared attorney could ruin a business, a human life or even a whole community.

Enter the Los Angeles Law School, the precursor to today’s respected USC Law School.

On June 10, the school celebrates its centennial and reflects on its present status as one of the nation’s leaders in legal education. This is the story of how a series of informal evening lectures, initiated in 1896 in the courtroom of one Judge David C. Morrison, grew into “a law school of permanent character,” in the words of James Brown Scott, the Harvard- and Heidelberg-educated attorney who was the school’s founding preceptor and first dean. How the fledgling institution made diversity its earliest hallmark. How innovation was embraced every step of the way. And how generations of deans, faculty, students and alumni have brought honor upon their school through a century of professional achievements.

Like Los Angeles itself, the USC Law School has become a national player. In academic circles, it enjoys a reputation for intellectual vitality. Nearly half the faculty holds doctoral or master’s degrees in addition to their JDs. Uniquely multidisciplinary in character, the school has strong programs in law and economics, law and humanities and clinical legal education.

Its student body is equally exciting. Last year’s entering class of 200 was culled from nearly 4,000 applicants. No longer just a regional school, USC Law School attracts graduates from more than 100 colleges and universities across the country and abroad. Diversity remains a trademark: nearly 40 percent of students belong to an ethnic minority, and 45 percent are women. With a faculty-student ratio of about 13 to 1, the Law School retains the feeling of a tight-knit scholarly community where students, faculty and graduates build lifelong bonds of personal and professional loyalty.

Gone are the peripatetic, makeshift quarters (which early in the school’s history had ranged from rented offices to an autopsy room in the USC Medical College). Today, the Law School’s spacious facilities do much to advance the legal learning process and promote intellectual inquiry. Besides plentiful classrooms and lecture halls, the school’s five-level Elvon and Mabel Musick Building encompasses a moot courtroom, a state-of-the-art law library, information technology and online research centers, clinical and journal offices, lounges and a cafeteria.

Philanthropy – much of it from alumni – has lifted the school to new heights. With a market value now exceeding $100 million, its endowment ranks among the nation’s 10 largest private law school endowments. Chairs and professorships, a key indicator of academic competitiveness, have grown apace, now totaling 29 (compared to just four in 1980).

Also driving the school’s reputation are its graduates. Today as in years past, the accomplishments of these Trojan attorneys in private practice, public service, government, teaching, the judiciary and business add luster to USC’s name.

Over time, Scott’s words – “a law school of permanent character” – have taken on weightier meaning. When he spoke them in 1896, the school’s founder was invoking the idea of a properly chartered school, in contrast to the prevailing “study associations” that periodically formed and disbanded when apprentices were cramming for the state bar exam. A century later, the USC Law School has proven to be far more than just “permanent”: the emphasis now falls on the word “character.”

This article is excerpted from USC Trojan Family Magazine, summer 2000. It was researched by John G. “Tom” Tomlinson, associate dean for alumni relations and development, who is writing a comprehensive history of the school, and Karen Lash, (JD ‘87) associate dean for external relations.

More about the Saturday, June 10, law school centennial celebration and articles on the school’s history can be found at: www.usc.edu/law/centennial, or by calling (213) 740-6143 for ticket information. The gala centennial dinner dance at the school includes a reception, viewing of historical displays and a keynote address by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
In honor of the law school’s centennial celebration, the summer 2000 USC Trojan Family Magazine presented a full history in photos, highlighting the events and individuals that elevated USC to the top echelon of American legal education. Visit Trojan Family’s Web site at: www.usc.edu/trojan_family.