USC News

Menu Search

One Hundred Years of Law and Ardor: 1900-2000

Photo by Hacob Khodaverdian

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 hold 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 13:1, 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 Col-lege). 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.”

In honor of the Law School’s centennial celebration, USC Trojan Family Magazine presents a history in photos, highlighting the events and individuals that elevated USC into the top echelon of American legal education.


Los Angeles Law Students Association is formed. Eager law apprentices took the lead in promoting “organized” legal education in Los Angeles. In 1896, Judge David C. Morrison “threw open the doors of his courtroom” for 36 law apprentices – five of them women – to hear prominent local attorneys praise the concept of a formal law school. James Brown Scott, who was to head the nascent institution, exhorted the students to create a “law school of permanent character.”

Founding dean James Brown Scott in 1898. Patriotism prompted him to resign and serve in the Spanish-American War.
Right: Dean Frank M. Porter with prospective students.
Photo courtesy of USC Law School

The Los Angeles Law School is incorporated. Its 11-member board of trustees included a woman, self-made agricultural magnate Harriett W.R. Strong.

Program becomes affiliated with USC; the university awards degrees for study completed at the Los Angeles Law School. As early as 1885, USC officials had contemplated forming a law school. This affiliation realized the dream of early advocates Robert Widney (left) and George I. Cochran, both Los Angeles attorneys and USC trustees.

James Brown Scott’s premature resignation put the new law school’s “permanent character” to the test. There followed a succession of “annual deans”: Lewis A. Groff (1900-01), George L. Sanders (1901-02) and Daniel M. Hammack (1902-04). Starting in 1900, the school moved six times in as many years.

The first law school graduates: Class of 1901.

Photo courtesy of USC Law School

USC begins awarding law degrees. Gavin W. Craig receives the first diploma.

Building Permanence

University of Wisconsin-educated contracts expert Frank M. Porter LLM ’10 is appointed dean. In his 23 years at the helm, Porter struggled to bring permanence to all aspects of law school life. He stabilized the faculty, strengthened academic standards and promoted a diverse student body. A permanent law school building was finally dedicated on the University Park Campus in 1926.

Frederick W. Houser JD ’00, one of the school’s first graduates, becomes the first alumnus to serve on the bench. After graduating, he spent a term in the California Assembly before his election to the Los Angeles County superior court in 1906; he later rose to the appellate court and the state supreme court.

The USC Law School gains membership in the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Schools. These two bodies accredit all American law schools.

The Wilcox Building and L.A. Trust Building briefly served as school headquarters.
Right: Tajo Building, the law school’s home after 1911.

Photo courtesy of USC Law School

Law school moves to Tajo Building. After 15 years of changing headquarters, the law school found stability in this downtown building, at the corner of First Street and Broadway. The school remained at this site until 1925.

Stare Decisis – the school’s yearbook – reflects an increasingly diverse and international student body. Japanese, Filipino, Armenian and Russian Jewish students are represented in photographs, along with women and the school’s second black student. The yearbook includes a section devoted exclusively to “co-education.” A year earlier, students had founded Phi Delta Delta, the nation’s first women’s law student sorority.

The USC Law School entering class, in 1914.
Right: The police court (center), birthplace of the law school, and the Tajo Building (far left), an early home.

Photo courtesy of USC Law School

Mabel Walker Willebrandt JD ’16, LLM ’17, graduates. Arguably the most prominent American woman attorney from the 1920s through the ’40s, Willebrandt was Assistant Attorney General during the Harding administration.

In less than two decades, the law school student enrollment climbs to the top five in America. The student boom reflects the explosive growth of Los Angeles itself, a city of nearly 1 million inhabitants.

William Burby
Right: Bert McDonald JD ’23 with his mother.

Photo courtesy of USC Law School

You Chung Hong JD ’24, LLM ’25 graduates. Hong was the first Chinese American admitted to practice in California and went on to become the nation’s foremost Chinese civil rights attorney over the next four decades.

Seeds of Excellence

Mabel Walker Willebrandt with USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid in 1926.
Photo courtesy of USC Law School/Hong Portrait courtesy of the You Chung Hong and Mabel C. Hong Archives

Property law expert William Burby joins the law school faculty. The University of Michigan-trained lawyer set the tone for legal education for the next 35 years. Employing the Socratic and case methods, Professor Burby’s courses prepared three generations of USC law students for real-world practice. His scholarly publications were mandatory reading for students and practitioners alike.

Criminal law expert Justin Miller is appointed dean. During his three years in the position, the Stanford-educated dean recruited several important faculty members andadvanced the school’s scholarly reputation.

In the same year, Southern California Law Review is first published. Edited and managed by law students, this flagship law school journal is known for publishing high quality, cutting-edge scholarship by nationally known academics. Today, the Review’s circulation is among the largest in the nation, and its articles among the most frequently cited. Also founded in 1927 was USC’s chapter of the Order of the Coif chapter. Inclusion in this national legal honorary society testified to the Law School’s maturation in academic stature. The following year, students pioneered the practice of providing pro bono legal advice to the poor through the USC Legal Clinic.

Washington University law school dean and criminal law expert William G. Hale is appointed dean. Despite the upheavals of the Depression and World War II, Hale’s deanship was one of remarkable stability. The core of his faculty – William Burby, Paul Jones, Robert Kingsley, Stanley Howell and Shelden Elliott – were in place throughout Hale’s 18-year tenure.

In the same year, Manuel Ruiz Jr. ’27, JD ’30, the law school’s first known Latino alumnus, graduates. Ruiz was considered the “California dean of Mexican American lawyers.” He was appointed by President Nixon to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, and he authored numerous works, including the seminal Mexican American Legal Heritage in the Southwest.

Edwin Jefferson JD ’31 graduates. Jeffer-son is representative of a group of black graduates who rose to leadership positions in Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th century. He was appointed to the bench in 1940. Other outstanding African-American alumni include David Williams JD ’37, who became a federal judge; Bert McDonald JD ’23, the first black lawyer in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office; and Crispus Attucks Wright ’36, JD ’38, who together with McDonald, Williams and others founded the John M. Langston Bar Association in 1943 (other bar associations had racial restrictions).

USC Law School graduate Shelden Elliott JD ’31, LLM ’32 is appointed dean. On the faculty since his graduation, Elliott was former director of the Legal Clinic and an expert in legislation, administrative law and procedure.

In the same year, the USC Institute on Federal Taxation is first held. The flagship of the law school’s fleet of continuing legal education programs, the Institute on Federal Taxation is one of only three such law school-sponsored institutes in the country today.

First William Green Hale Moot Court competition. Named after the retired dean, this inaugural forensic competition pitted student-advocates on either side of a custody decree dispute and a full faith and credit matter. Arguing before five California justices, Philip Jones JD ’49 took the first prize. Jones himself later advanced to the bench. The competition was founded by Bill Hogoboom MPA ’41, JD ’49, another future judge, and Jerome L. Doff JD ’49.

USC law professor Robert Kingsley is named dean. Educated at Harvard and the University of Minnesota, the criminal law and domestic relations expert had been on the law school’s faculty since 1928. His 11-year tenure in the dean’s office witnessed the first stirrings of active philanthropy.

California Supreme Court justices Marcus Kaufman JD ’56, David Eagleson JD ’50, Joyce Luther Kennard JD ’74 and Malcolm Lucas JD ’53.
Right: Studying in the Law Library.
Photo courtesy of USC Law School

Legion Lex is founded. This active and successful volunteer fund-raising support group for the law school has, over the past 45 years, generated millions of dollars in annual contributions. Legion Lex has helped erect buildings, supported faculty research and teaching, and provided student scholarships.

USC law professor Orrin B. Evans is appointed dean. The former University of Missouri professor and university counsel joined USC’s faculty in 1947 as an expert on real estate and insurance law. During his five years as dean, Evans helped usher in the USC Law School’s signature emphasis on interdisciplinary study.

“Law, Language, and Ethics” first offered. This signature course, required of all first-year law students, transformed the way law is taught at USC. Drawing on fields such as sociology, psychology and economics, the course encourages students to examine legal issues in a comprehensive context. Its introduction in 1965 anticipated the school’s current faculty, many of whom have interdisciplinary interests and expertise.

Rise to National Prominence

Judicial administration expert Dorothy W. Nelson LLM ’56 becomes the first woman dean of a leading American law school. In 1957, a year after completing her advanced legal degree at USC, Nelson joined the faculty. A decade later, she succeeded Orrin Evans as dean, leading the school until 1980, when she was appointed to the bench. Nelson remains a judge on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Board of Councilors is first convened. Culled from a distinguished list of lawyers specializing in a wide variety of legal areas, this board provides crucial insight and advice to both the USC Law School dean and the university president.

The Black Law Students Association is founded.

Chicano Law Students Association is founded. In the same year, the law school moves into its current headquarters, the $3.4 million Elvon and Mabel Musick Building. Named in honor of Elvon Musick, the five-level, 88,000-square-foot facility provided state-of-the-art resources, including a computerized library.

Asian Law Students Association is founded.

Program in Law and Rational Choice founded. Run jointly with Caltech, this program brings together professors, speakers and researchers doing work in law, economics and political science.

USC-educated constitutional law expert Scott H. Bice ’65, JD ’68 is named dean. The second-longest serving dean in the school’s history, Bice will return to teaching when his 20-year tenure ends next month. Under his watch, the law school became international in its scope, nearly doubled in physical size and completed three major capital campaigns.

Post-Conviction Justice Project is founded. The program gives students real-world training as advocates for prison inmates.

The Public Interest Law Foundation is founded. Concerned about insufficient funds for public interest legal services, a group of law students levied a self-imposed $20 annual tax. With nearly 100 percent student participation and broad support from staff, faculty and graduates, the foundation subsidizes hundreds of student-advocates serving the elderly, abused and neglected children, homeless families and other vulnerable populations.

Children’s Legal Issues Clinic founded. For a decade, students have represented minors in legal proceedings dealing with dependency and neglect, abuse, guardianships and school administrative matters.

The Musick Building’s new wing opens. Adding 62,000 square feet to the 1970 facility, this expansion yielded the Ackerman Moot Courtroom, new seminar classrooms, offices for student organizations and clinical programs, lounges and a cafeteria, computer and video labs and a greatly enlarged law library.

Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics is founded. Sponsored jointly with the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the Pacific Center brings together international scholars and public dignitaries in teaching and research concerning social, ethical and legal issues in health care.

Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal is founded. This student-managed publication focuses on the scholarly work of legal academics, economists, physicians, anthropologist and experts in other fields who analyze law from their particular perspectives. The Southern California Review of Law and Women’s Studies, inaugurated in 1991, explores legal issues relating to gender and society.

Law in the New Millennium

Law Library embraces information technology: its card catalog goes online. The following year, the law school publicly launches its Website (

USC Law School unveils its first multi-media classrooms. One-third of library carrels are now wired to accommodate personal laptop computers – in use by 80 percent of students.

Small Business Clinic is founded. Law students offer consultation services on employment issues to small businesses and nonprofits.

In the same year, the USC Center for Communications Law and Policy opens. The interdisciplinary program is jointly sponsored by USC Annenberg School for Communication, USC Annenberg Center for Communication and the law school.

New law student services go online, including class registration, grade notification and on-campus employer interview sign-ups. Email discussion lists supplement classroom teaching in many courses.

June 10, USC Law School celebrates its centennial.

More information about the USC Law School centennial celebration and in-depth articles on the school’s history are available on the Internet (

A practice courtroom, circa 1914.
Center: Hon. Dorothy W. Nelson LLM ’56
Right: Clinical professor Carrie Hempel (front) with USC student-advocates outside the California Institution for Women at Frontera.
Photo courtesy of USC Law School

One Hundred Years of Law and Ardor: 1900-2000

Top stories on USC News