It may be hard to believe, given today’s bumper crop, but at one time in America there was a shortage of lawyers – and Tapping Reeve decided to do something about it.
The Revolutionary War disrupted the legal profession in America as much as, if not more than, any other. Some states outlawed lawyers who had not been trained in America. Even where they were allowed to practice, English-trained lawyers were few in number, especially after hostilities kept Americans at home. And, of course, the war itself claimed some lawyers who had joined up to fight.
At the same time, the aftermath of the war produced a flurry of legal fights over issues of what rights and ownership passed through the war and which were invalidated. All that needed to be sorted in the courts.
Tapping Reeve, a lawyer in Litchfield, Conn. saw this first hand. Apprenticeship was the established means of training lawyers in the American colonies. But after the war there were far too many willing apprentices and far too few lawyers for the system to work well.
So Reeve invented the first law school in New England – the Litchfield Law School – in his home. Reeve was a former tutor at Princeton University and he had trained several apprentices before formally establishing his school, among them Aaron Burr.
But as the demand grew, Reeve refined his approach to teaching. By 1782, he had developed a formal curriculum. Two years later, with 15 students bursting the seams of his available office space, Reeve built a schoolhouse. It was a simple, unheated building, but the school would educate more than 1,000 students before it closed.
The teaching methods of the school evolved into a daily routine. Students would be given a test on the material covered the previous session, they would be given a lecture each day, which they were expected to transcribe, and spend the remainder of the day studying the citations that were given during the lecture, taking additional notes in their notebooks. Then, students would transcribe what they had learned into a completed summary for reference. When they finished their studies, students would have five volumes of notes that would serve as the basic references for their law practices.
The entire course of study took 14 months – with two four-week vacations. The cost, by the 1820s, was $100 for the first year and $60 for the remainder, after which students were well-prepared for the bar exam.
Reeve himself never gave up practicing law, and in 1798 he was made a judge in the Superior Court. Reeve reached out to former student, John Gould, to join in the school and the two men ran it together until Reeve retired in 1820. Gould would carry on until 1833, by which time larger universities had established growing law schools that appealed more to young students.
The final list of lawyers trained by Reeve and Gould was impressive. Students from every state in the union attended the school, and its list of alumni contains governors, senators, congressmen, chief justices and judges, ambassadors and two vice presidents. Among the more prominent names: Education reformer Horace Mann and Vice President John C. Calhoun. The school also inspired several of its students to launch schools of their own throughout the country, based on the Litchfield Law School model.