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Notebooks from the first American law school

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  August 14, 2013 02:13 PM

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Law school is notoriously grueling, but today's fears of being cold-called are nothing next to the rote endurance feats performed by students at the country's very first training ground for young lawyers.

Last week, the Harvard Gazette ran a story on newly digitized notebooks from students who attended Litchfield Law School, which operated from 1784-1833 in Litchfield, Connecticut, and was the first place in America that aspiring attorneys could receive a formal legal education. Prior to Litchfield, all lawyers learned the ins and outs of English common law by apprenticing. In the late 1700s, though, a prominent lawyer named Tapping Reeve found himself overwhelmed by the large number of apprentices and clerks he'd taken on. Litchfield Law School was born when he decided that he might convey his legal experience to them more efficiently via lecture.

As the Gazette reports, the education at Litchfield was typical of the pour-it-down-their-throats pedagogy that we associate with early educational practice. The course of study at Litchfield consisted of 139 90-minute lectures delivered over a year or so. The lectures were given in the morning, and following each one, students were expected to write out a copy of what they'd heard. Between all that transcribing, and additional writing based on evenings spent reading the law, the typical Litchfield student finished his education having filled five bound notebooks that together ran to as many as 3,000 pages.

Most of those notebooks are currently housed at the Litchfield Historical Society and at Yale Law School. Harvard Law School has 64 of the notebooks, though, which you can browse online here. The handwritten pages are hard to decipher (not surprising given the haste in which they had to have been produced), but the notebooks are interesting even if you can't make out too many specific ideas. The lectures were grouped according to how the law understood different kinds of relationships, like "Master and Servant," "Husband and Wife," "Parent and Child," and "Guardian and Ward," which is significantly different than the topical approach (contracts, torts, taxes) that today's law schools take. The notebooks also elicit a greater degree of sympathy than you get from most historical artifacts: It's hard to read all those pages without feel bad for the poor, cramped hands that produced them.

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