Kent Hall when it housed the law school

Our History

Since 1858, Columbia Law School has been a world leader in legal education. Learn more about our history-defining moments.

1754: Columbia University is established.

Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King’s College, which was located in a schoolhouse in Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. As one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the United States (and the oldest institution of higher learning in New York), Columbia has shaped the laws and judicial systems of the country for more than two centuries. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were students.

1793: Columbia’s first professor of law leaves behind a legacy of pioneering legal scholarship.

James Kent

James Kent (left) was named the first professor of law at Columbia. His seminal lectures on jurisprudence were published as the four-volume Commentaries on American Law, which influenced legal thought for generations.

1858: The newly opened Law School establishes legal pedagogy.

The Law School, one of the first independent law schools in the nation, opened its doors in 1858 as Columbia College of Law. Theodore Dwight became the school’s first warden (an earlier name for the dean) and introduced a new mode of legal pedagogy known as “The Dwight Method.” In lieu of the prevailing office apprenticeship as a means of legal education, Dwight developed a formal program of law, using lectures, examinations, recitations, quizzes, moot trials, and Socratic dialogue with the student.

Francis Lieber

1863: Law School professor drafts the first modern codification of the laws of war.

During the Civil War, Professor Francis Lieber (right)—a political philosopher and pioneering international law scholar—was commissioned by President Abraham 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.

1870 to 1880s: Alumni establish some of today’s leading law firms. 

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.

1882: The first African-American student graduates. 

John Daniel Lewis graduated from Columbia Law School in 1882, setting a path for others to follow. The legendary actor and activist Paul Robeson graduated in 1923, and his legacy has celebrated by the Law School’s Black Law Students Association for more than two decades with its annual Paul Robeson Conference and Gala.

1897: Columbia University moves to Morningside Heights.

Kent Hall

In 1897, the university moved to its current location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. McKim, Mead and White designed the neoclassical campus as an academic village to house the undergraduate college, the Law School, and other graduate schools.

1901: The inaugural edition of the Columbia Law Review is published.

The Columbia Law Review was founded in 1901 as a publication devoted to legal scholarship and legal thought. The student-run journal (one of 14 at the Law School) publishes articles by renowned legal scholars and lawyers as well as student-written notes and has for decades been one of the most widely distributed and cited law reviews in the country. 

1920 to 1940s: Alumnus and former Law School dean issues pivotal opinions as a Supreme Court justice.

Harlan Fiske Stone, Class of 1898, who became dean of the Law School in 1910, was appointed to the U.S. 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.

1920s: Women enter the Law School and become trailblazers in law, politics, and culture.

Constance Baker Motley

In 1927, the first female students enrolled at the Law School, paving the way for the generations of pioneering women—from Constance Baker Motley ’46 (left), former Manhattan borough president, New York state senator, and federal judge, to Barbara Black ’55, former dean of the Law School and first female dean of an Ivy League law school, to Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and the first female tenured faculty member at the Law School (1972).

1931: The Law School formally adopts a global perspective on law. 

The formation of the Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law in 1931 made the Law 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.

1930s: Faculty make critical contributions to the New Deal. 

In the midst of the Great Depression, Columbia Law School Professor Walter Gellhorn ’31 became one of the nation’s leading experts in administrative law. 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.

1940s: Launch of the LSAT.

Columbia Law was the driver behind the creation of the first LSAT. In 1948, after the admissions director questioned whether there might not be a better test than what was being used in 1945, Professor Willis Reese (for whom our annual teaching prize is named) developed a new test that would correlate with first-year grades rather than bar passage rates.
 

1954: Brown v. Board of Education staffs legal team with Law School alumni.

Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, and Thurgood Marshall

In his capacity as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the late Jack Greenberg ’48 (far left) 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. The legal team for the case included LDF Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall (near left) as well as Columbia Law School faculty members and alumni such as Constance Baker Motley ’46 (center), 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.

1970 to 1980s: The Law School becomes an international leader in human rights law.

In the early 1960s, Professor Louis Henkin joined the Columbia Law School faculty; 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, then 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 provides summer funding for human rights internships in the U.S. and abroad.

1970s: Experiential learning takes a front seat. 

The Law School’s clinical program, established in the early 1970s, allows students to provide legal services to underserved individuals whose cases involve a wide range of legal issues, from social justice to environmental law to community enterprise. 

1975: Prominent corporate watchdog opens an interdisciplinary center for economic study.

The Center for Law and Economic Studies was founded in 1975 by the late Professor Harvey Goldschmid ’65, a leading advocate for shareholders’ rights, and Ira Millstein ’49. As a commissioner of the SEC from 2002 to 2005, Goldschmid played a significant role in developing regulations to deter insider trading.

1980s: New centers for East Asian studies foster valuable intellectual exchange.

One of the first American law schools to offer courses in Japanese law, Columbia founded the Center for Japanese Legal Studies in 1980. 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.

1990s: The Law School institutes a pro bono requirement, reflecting its long-standing commitment to the public good. 

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 around the globe to assist people and communities seeking access to justice.

1997: Ahead of the tech bubble, the Kernochan Center drives innovation in the IP space.

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. 

2000s: Study abroad opportunities open up around the globe.

Students stand by a canal in Amsterdam.

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.

2006: A new center launches to tackle issues facing gender and sexual justice movements.

In 2006, the Law School opened the nation’s first clinic dedicated to sexuality and gender law, which continues to provide students with training in impact litigation, legislative work, and community advocacy.

2009: The Sabin Center opens to combat climate change.

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.

2010: Dual degrees offer enriching interdisciplinary study. 

In 2010, the Law School launched a three-year dual degree with Columbia Business School, complementing the four-year program already in place. Law School students also 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.

2015: Gillian Lester joins Columbia as the Law School’s 15th dean. 

Dean Gillian Lester

As part of Dean Lester’s bold vision for the school, she established task forces on global initiatives and curricular innovation, as well as a renewed focus on enhancing 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.

Black and white headshot of Bella Abzug smiling

“A warrior for every social justice movement of her day.”

Early Life

Bronx Beginnings

Bella Savitsky Abzug was born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She was a civil rights activist throughout her life.

Early Life

Finding Her Voice

Abzug liked to say she was “born yelling.” As a young woman, she delivered impassioned speeches in the New York City subway for causes she championed. She continued making an impact with her words throughout her career. Watch her in action.

Columbia and Beyond

Life On and Off Campus

At Columbia Law, Abzug served as editor of the Columbia Law Review. During World War II, she took a sabbatical to work at a shipyard. She also married Martin Abzug in 1944 (they remained married until his death in 1986). Listen to her speaking at Columbia.

Columbia and Beyond

Start in Civil Rights

After graduating from Columbia Law, Abzug worked as a civil rights lawyer, including in the highly publicized case of Willie McGee, a Black man from Mississippi charged with raping a white woman.

Activism in the 1960s

Fighting for Women’s Rights

In the 1960s, Abzug founded Women Strike for Peace, a group that lobbied for a ban on nuclear testing, and marched to protest the Vietnam War.

Political Career

Redefining “A Woman’s Place”

In 1970, at the age of 50, Abzug ran for and won a seat in Congress under the slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”

Political Career

Congresswoman Abzug

Abzug authored or co-authored several historic bills, including:

Title IX.

The Freedom of Information Act.

The Equality Act of 1974, the first bill in U.S. history that aimed to protect gay people from discrimination.

Activism from the 1970s and 1990s

Making History

Abzug left Congress in early 1977, but her work continued. She wrote two successful books: Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972) and Gender Gap (1984, with co-author Mim Kelber). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Abzug to lead a new National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, which led to the seminal 1977 National Women’s Conference

Activism from the 1970s to the 1990s

A Global Perspective

In 1991, she co-founded the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, a global women’s advocacy organization that promotes human rights, gender equality, and the integrity of the environment.

Legacy

Opening Doors

Abzug died in 1998, but her legacy lives on. She was the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from New York and the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. Though she lost both races, she paved the way for other women to run for political office and fight for equal rights. 

Legacy

A Lasting Impact

“When Abzug first took office in 1971, there were only 13 women in the House of Representatives. By the time she left in 1977, she was one of 18 women in that chamber. Today, there are 101. When she ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1976, there were no women in the Senate; today there are 26.” (“Feminist Activist Bella Abzug Paved the Way for Women Politicians,” Teen Vogue)

Spotlight May 6, 2020

Archival black and white photo of Willis L.M. Reese sitting at a desk in front of a bookshelf.
Early Career

Star Student

Graduated first in the Yale Law School Class of 1938.

Early Career

Law clerk

Clerked for Judge Thomas W. Swan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. 

Early Career

Intelligence Officer

Served as a captain with the U.S. Army’s Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

Columbia and Beyond

Professor

Joined the Columbia Law faculty in 1946, became a professor in 1948, and named the Charles Evans Hughes Professor of Law in 1957. He was known for his  “booming voice, his directness, the incredible agility of his mind, the esoteric nature of his hypotheticals . . . combined with a total lack of pomposity and a manifest and unqualified dedication to the law made his classes an experience that his thousands of students will always remember,” in the words of his colleague Hans Smit ’58.

Columbia and Beyond

Innovator

Played an integral role (along with Columbia Law Admissions Director Frank H. Bowles) in devising the first standardized law school admissions test. Administered in 1948, it ultimately became what we know as the LSAT.

Columbia and Beyond

Institutional Leader

Directed the Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law from 1955 to 1980.

Local Leader

Public Official

Elected mayor of Hewlett Bay Park, New York. 

Local Leader

Champion of Underserved Communities

Served as director of the New York Legal Aid Society from 1951 to 1971 and chairman of the Community Action for Legal Services in Harlem and the Bronx from 1967 to 1970.

Global Leader

Delegate

Represented the United States nine times between 1956 and 1985 at the Hague Conference for Private International Law.

Global Leader

Scholar

Pursued his academic interests in international law and conflict of law, as chief reporter for the American Law Institute’s Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Law, which a distinguished British legal scholar, who’d taught at Harvard Law School, called “the most impressive, comprehensive and valuable work on the conflict of laws that has ever been produced in any country, in any language, at any time.”

Legacy

Legal Legend

Honored upon his retirement in the Columbia Law Review (Vol. 81, No. 5) with a “Resolution of the Faculty,” which described him as “a great character, with great character” and included essays by his colleagues. Michael I. Sovern, then-president of Columbia University, wrote of Reese’s teaching style, “Every part of him participated in the dialogue—endless arms and legs, a body that looked like an exclamation point except when it curled over the lectern to form a question mark, a voice that modulated between the shrill and the raucous. He was uproariously funny, endlessly interesting, a master teacher. Socrates would have acknowledged him a peer, but not at first sight.”