The History of Columbia Law School
From its inception, the Law School encouraged its students and faculty to mold the law, not merely convey it.
Today, more than 150 years after Columbia Law School was founded, this philosophy is reflected in the contributions our graduates have made—not only to the legal profession, but also to government and politics, business, education, philanthropy, and the arts—shaping culture and human progress throughout the world.
1754: Columbia University, formerly known as King's College, was founded near the present site of New York's City Hall. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher education in the state of New York and the sixth-oldest such institution in the United States. Its early students included such statesman as Alexander Hamilton, an author of The Federalist Papers, and John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
1793: James Kent was named the first professor of law at Columbia, and he lectured until he was appointed to the Supreme Court of New York five years later. His lectures were eventually published as the classic Commentaries on American Law.
1858: Columbia Law School was founded as one of the first law schools in the United States and a charter member of the American Association of Law Schools. The Law School's first dean, Theodore Dwight, did much to establish the superiority of academic training over office instruction (the norm at the time) to a skeptical legal profession.
1860: The Law School's first commencement took place at the Hall of the New York Historical Society. The class had 28 graduates.
1891: William A. Keener succeeded Theodore Dwight, becoming the second dean of Columbia Law School. Keener spread the use of the case teaching method, revamped the entire curriculum, extended the period of study to three years, enlarged the faculty, and elevated admission standards.
1896: Columbia University moved to its present location in Morningside Heights, a historical, neoclassical campus designed to function as an urban, intellectual enclave for students, faculty, and staff alike. By this time, the campus housed an undergraduate engineering school and graduate faculties in engineering, science, medicine, law, teaching, political science and philosophy in addition to the undergraduate College.
Early 20th Century
1901: The Columbia Law Review was established to reflect the growing sophistication in legal scholarship and legal thought. Today, the Review is the third most widely distributed and cited law review in the country.
1910: Harlan Fiske Stone, who would later be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, became dean of the Law School. He strove to help students recognize that the law is adaptable to changing conditions in society.
1911: Legislative Drafting Research Fund was established to improve federal, state, and municipal lawmaking.
1927: First women enrolled in Columbia Law School. Our early alumnae went on to become law firm partners, professors, judges, congresswomen, deans, and heads of non-profit organizations such as museums and civil rights groups.
1928: The Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law was formed, strengthening Columbia's leading role in international law.
Mid 20th Century
1944: Bella Abzug, a founding mother of feminism, a staunch supporter of gay and civil rights, and an international icon for human rights and world peace graduated from Columbia Law School.
1945: Elreta Alexander became the first black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School; she is followed by Constance Baker Motley '46, who was the first black woman to become a Manhattan borough president, New York state senator, and a federal judge.
1954: Jack Greenberg '48, in his capacity as counsel for the NAACP, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court of the United States. Professor Greenberg joined the Columbia Faculty in 1984, where he continues to teach such courses in civil procedure and civil rights.
1971: Lee Bollinger, current President of Columbia University and lead defendant in the affirmative action Supreme Court case, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), graduated from Columbia Law School.
1975: The Center for Law and Economic Studies was founded, reflecting a growing interest in this area of legal scholarship.
Late 20th Century
1980: Columbia Law School, the first American law school to offer courses in Japanese law, founded the Center for Japanese Legal Studies.
1984: Columbia Law School established the Human Rights Internship Program, offering law students the opportunity to work as summer interns with human rights organizations in the United States and throughout the world. Since its inception, the more than 1,200 Human Rights Interns have been instrumental in a variety of roles, including drafting the South African Constitution, documenting human-rights abuses of gay and lesbian youth in America's prisons, and establishing the International Criminal Tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, just to name a few.
1986: Professor Barbara Aronstein Black '55 became dean of Columbia Law School. She was the first woman appointed as dean of an Ivy League law school.
1992: The Toshiba Library for Legal Research, the largest collection of Japanese legal materials outside Japan, was founded at Columbia Law School.
1993: Developed out of a student-led initiative, Columbia was the first law school to institute a pro-bono requirement of all of its law students. Since then, every Columbia law student performs at least 40 hours of pro-bono work during their law school tenure and continues to be shaped by student interests and needs as well as requests by public interest lawyers and organizations. Current pro-bono projects send students into New York City, and the rest of the world, in an effort to make a meaningful contribution for people seeking access to justice, the rule of law, and affordable solutions to critical community issues.
1993: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '59 became the second woman, and first Jewish woman, to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg is also a former member of the Columbia Law School Faculty.
1996: Columbia Law School underwent an extensive $140 million expansion and renewal project, including a three-story skylit lobby in Jerome L. Greene Hall, where the main staircase leads to an upper-level students commons, lounge areas, and a cafe.
1998: With the oldest comprehensive human rights program in American legal education, Columbia built on decades of research and education to found the Human Rights Institute (HRI), spearheading the training of the next generation of lawyers, educators, and human rights professionals.
2003: Lenfest Hall, a luxury student residence building with 209 fully-furnished studio and one-bedroom apartments, opened through the generosity of H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest '58 and his wife, Marguerite. With Lenfest Hall as one of many options, all Columbia law students are guaranteed subsidized, on-campus housing for all three years of their J.D. program.
2003: As one of the largest producers of law professors in the United Students, Columbia formally established the Program on Careers in Law Teaching for current students and alumni/ae.
2003: Columbia Law School's Social Justice Initiatives launched to further augment the global nature of Columbia's public interest and human rights programs, including its curricular offerings.
2004: The Law School hosted a year-long series of panels and conferences marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which many Columbia faculty and alumni/ae played pivotal roles.
2004: Columbia University celebrated its 250th anniversary.
2005: Columbia earned the top spot in the National Law Journal's first-ever ranking of law schools from which the 50 largest American law firms hired first-year associates.
2006: The Law School created the first-ever ABA-approved student study abroad programs with both Fudan University (Shanghai) and Peking University (Beijing), two of the leading law schools in mainland China.
2006: Columbia announced the nation's first Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic intended to provide its students with cutting-edge training in impact litigation, legislative work, and community advocacy. This innovative clinic will help produce lawyers with the necessary interest and expertise, while it makes a direct and immediate contribution to litigation and advocacy on LGBT and women's rights issues.
2006: Columbia law students won the School's third international Jessup Moot Court competition, placing first out of 550 international teams. The 2006 Columbia team is the first American team to win the international Jessup competition since 1990. Columbia most recently won the national championship in 2003.
2008: The Law School celebrated its sesquicentennial by hosting events around the globe.
2008: Columbia Law School announced a global alliance with preeminent law schools to create one-year integrated programs focusing on international criminal law, international security law, and global business law and governance.
2009: Columbia Law School launched the Center for Climate Change Law.
2009: Columbia redefined the Center for Public Interest Law, combining it with a host of dynamic extracurricular resources under the auspices of Social Justice Initiatives.
2010: Columbia launches the Federal Government Externship Program in D.C., giving students hands-on experience in government law offices.
2010: Columbia Law School Launched a 3-year joint degree with the Business School in addition to the 4-year program already in place.