The New-York Historical Society on Second Avenue and 11th Street, the original site of the Law School.
The Dawn of Democracy
The study of law at Columbia University dates back to its founding in 1754 as King’s College in Lower Manhattan. As one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the U.S., Columbia has shaped the laws and judicial systems of the country since its inception. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an author of the Federalist Papers, and John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, were among the school’s earliest students.
Teachers and Scholars
In 1793, James Kent was named the first professor of law at Columbia, and his seminal lectures on jurisprudence were published as the four-volume Commentaries on American Law, which influenced legal thought for generations.
In 1858, the Law School—one of the first independent law schools in the nation—opened its doors. Theodore Dwight became the school’s first warden (an earlier name for the dean), and he introduced a new mode of legal pedagogy known as the “Dwight Method.” Instead of the prevailing office apprenticeship system that offered an education that was a jumble of legal rules, Dwight’s academic approach provided students with a systematic view of law as a whole and a framework to interpret it.
During the Civil War, Professor Francis Lieber, a political philosopher, and pioneering international law scholar, was commissioned by President Lincoln to draft General Order No. 100, the first compilation of laws of war, which established how soldiers should conduct themselves. Now known as the Lieber Code, the 1863 document became the foundation for future laws of war, including The Hague and Geneva Conventions.
The Birth of Big Law
In the late 19th century, Columbia Law School graduates began to make their mark as legal entrepreneurs, establishing what would become some of the world’s largest and most influential law firms, including: Shearman & Sterling, founded in 1873 by John William Sterling, Class of 1867; Sullivan & Cromwell, founded in 1879 by William Nelson Cromwell, Class of 1876; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, founded in 1884 by John Woodruff Simpson, Class of 1873, Thomas Thacher, Class of 1875, and William Milo Barnum, Class of 1879.
New Home in Morningside Heights
In 1897, Columbia University moved to its present location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. McKim, Mead, and White designed the neoclassical campus as an academic village that would be home to the undergraduate college, the Law School, and other graduate schools.
The independent Columbia Law Review was founded in 1901 as a way for students to contribute to the development of legal scholarship and legal thought. The student-run journal (one of 14 at the Law School) is now one of the most widely distributed and cited law reviews in the country. Its alumni include Nancy Northup ’88, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights; Donald B. Verrilli Jr. ’83, former solicitor general of the United States; Mary Jo White ’74, former chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; and David Stern ’66, former commissioner of the NBA.
Harlan Fiske Stone, a graduate of the class of 1898 and the Law School's fourth dean, joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1924 and later served as chief justice.
Passing the Torch at the Supreme Court
Harlan Fiske Stone, Class of 1898, who became dean of the Law School in 1910, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1924. He served as chief justice of the United States from 1941 to 1946, succeeding Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Class of 1884.
Columbia Law School graduated its first African-American student, John Daniel Lewis, in 1882. In 1923, the legendary actor and activist Paul Robeson graduated from the Law School, and for more than two decades, the Black Law Students Association has celebrated his legacy with its annual Paul Robeson Conference and Gala. In 1927, the first female students enrolled at the Law School, charting a course for the generations of pioneering women that includes Constance Baker Motley ’46, former Manhattan borough president, New York state senator, and federal judge; Barbara Black ’55, former dean of the Law School and first female dean of an Ivy League law school; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Global Lens on the Law
The formation of the Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law in 1931 made the school an early leader in the study of foreign legal systems. International law expert Oscar Schachter ’39 helped the newly formed United Nations establish itself from its inception in 1945, and later served as director of the U.N. Legal Division. He would become known as the architect of the U.N.’s legal framework.
The New Deal
In the midst of the Great Depression, the importance of administrative law became paramount, and Columbia Law School Professor Walter Gellhorn ’31 was among the nation’s leading experts. When Franklin Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1933 (following in the footsteps of his cousin and fellow former Columbia Law School student Theodore Roosevelt), many faculty members, including Adolf A. Berle, who was part of the president’s “brain trust,” converged on Washington, D.C. to help implement the New Deal.
Leading the Civil Rights Movement
Jack Greenberg ’48, in his capacity as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. The 1954 landmark decision set in motion the end of legalized segregation in America. Greenberg’s legal team for the case included not only LDF Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall, but also Columbia Law School faculty members and alumni such as Constance Baker Motley ’46, Jack Weinstein ’48, Robert L. Carter ’41 LL.M., and Professor Charles Black. Greenberg would later take over for Marshall as the head of the LDF.
A Leader in Human Rights
In the early 1960s, Professor Louis Henkin joined the Columbia Law School faculty, and his work would become the foundation for the study of human rights law. He co-founded Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights in 1978, and the Law School’s Human Rights Institute two decades later. In the early 1980s, the Law School established its Human Rights Internship Program, which has given more than 1,700 students the opportunity to work as summer interns with human rights organizations throughout the world. Today, the Law School guarantees summer funding for human rights internships in the U.S. and abroad.
The Law School’s clinical program, which was established in the 1970s, has expanded to cover a wide range of issues, from social justice to environmental law to community enterprise. In 2006, the Law School launched the nation’s first clinic dedicated to sexuality and gender law, which provides students with cutting-edge training in impact litigation, legislative work, and community advocacy.
Constance Baker Motley ’46 was a Manhattan borough president, a New York state senator, a federal judge and part of the team that successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education.
The Center for Law and Economic Studies was founded in 1975 by Professor Harvey Goldschmid ’65 and Ira Millstein ’49. Goldschmid was a leading advocate for shareholders’ rights. As a commissioner of the SEC from 2002 to 2005, he played a significant role in developing regulations to deter insider trading.
The Global Imperative
One of the first American law schools to offer courses in Japanese law, Columbia founded the Center for Japanese Legal Studies in 1980, and our Toshiba Library for Legal Research has the largest collection of Japanese legal materials in a U.S. university. The Center for Chinese Legal Studies followed in 1983. Columbia Law School is now also home to centers for Korean, European, and Israeli legal studies.
The Pro Bono Requirement
In the early 1990s, Columbia Law School established the Center for Public Interest Law (now called Social Justice Initiatives) and became one of the first law schools to institute a pro bono requirement. Students must perform at least 40 hours of volunteer lawyering before graduation. Current pro bono projects send students across Manhattan and around the globe to make a meaningful contribution for people seeking access to justice and affordable solutions to community and personal issues.
Lawyers for the 21st Century
Founded in 1997, the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts, helps students navigate the ever-changing legal aspects of intellectual property in the digital age. In 2003, Professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality,” the principle that internet service providers should not favor particular products or websites.
International Study Abroad Opportunities
In 2006, the Law School created the first ABA-approved student study abroad programs with Fudan University in Shanghai and Peking University in Beijing. Two years later, the Law School announced a global alliance with preeminent law schools in Amsterdam, Paris, and Oxford to create one-year integrated programs focusing on international criminal law, international security law, and global business law and governance.
A Leader in Environmental Law
Founded in 2009, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law leads the charge in global climate change regulation and policy. The center works with our Environmental Law Clinic and partners with Columbia University’s renowned Earth Institute.
In 2010, the Law School launched a three-year joint degree with the Business School, in addition to the four-year program already in place. Law School students can take courses for credits toward their J.D. from eight of Columbia’s graduate schools, including the School of International and Public Affairs and the Journalism School.
Our Dean and Her Vision
In January of 2015, Gillian Lester joined Columbia as the Law School’s 15th dean. She has established task forces on global initiatives and curricular innovation, as well as a renewed focus on the student experience and building a stronger sense of community among students, faculty, and alumni. Under her stewardship, Columbia Law School is more than ever an institution that prepares students to be exceptionally capable, ethical, and resourceful leaders.
Funding the Future
Launched in October of 2017, the $300 million Campaign for Columbia Law is a five-year initiative focused on five areas of investment: scholarships and other student financial aid; support for faculty and research; renovation of the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library; increased opportunities for experiential learning; and boosting the Annual Fund. By launch, the Campaign had already received pledges of more than $105 million.