There’s history. And there’s our story. We invite you to explore both.
When institutions recount their history, they typically highlight landmark dates and standard-setting achievements. “60+ Moments in the History of Stanford Law School,” an exhibit in our Classroom Building, takes a less conventional approach, sharing the story of Stanford Law through a sampling of fact, anecdote, and recollection — famous, infamous, and almost forgotten.
For this unique project, we combed our archives and interviewed long-tenured faculty, staff and alumni for their input and insider knowledge. The result is more than a timeline from 1893 to the present; it’s a collection of stories — some well-known, some little-known — exploring Stanford Law’s origins, turning points, impact, innovations, history-makers, heroes, lore, and legend.
We are always making history. These are a few of the moments that define us.
To see this exhibit in person, please visit the 1st floor lobby of SLS Crown Quadrangle’s F.I.R. Hall (Classroom Building).
A Comprehensive History of Stanford Law
Stanford introduced its law curriculum in 1893, when the university engaged its first two law professors. One was Benjamin Harrison, former President of the United States, who delivered a landmark series of lectures on the Constitution. The other, Nathan Abbott, served as head of the nascent law program. Abbott assembled a small faculty to which he imparted a standard of rigor and excellence in the tradition of Stanford University. And so the story of SLS began.
Stanford’s law school was at the forefront of efforts to institute the California Bar exam, which was added to the requirements to practice law in California in 1919. The law school was accredited by the American Bar Association in 1923, the year the ABA began certifying law schools.Stanford’s law program was officially transformed into a modern professional school in 1924 when it began requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission. The same year, Stanford’s Board of Trustees adopted a resolution making the law school purely a graduate school. In 1932, the school added Master of Laws (LLM) and Doctor of the Science of Laws (SJD) degree options.
|During its first decade, the law department was composed mostly of undergraduate law majors. Law clubs, which combined moot court training with social camaraderie, dominated student life. Notably, the law department enrolled many students who might not have been welcome at more traditional law schools at the time, including women and Hispanic, Chinese and Japanese students.|
|20TH — Century Momentum|
In 1900, the law department moved from its original location, Encina Hall, to modest quarters on the northeast side of the Inner Quadrangle: two large recitation rooms, three faculty offices, and a library. Ensconced there, the law department began to focus more on professional training than on undergraduate education, implementing a comprehensive three-year program that would form the heart of the curriculum for decades. Also in 1900, the department became one of 27 charter members of the Association of American Law Schools. In May 1901, Stanford awarded its first professional degree, an LL.B., to student James Burcham.
In an effort to acknowledge the emerging professional nature of the department, Stanford’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution in 1908 to substitute the term “law school” for “law department,” although technically the law program remained a department within the university. Eight years later, in 1916, Frederic Campbell Woodward became the first head of the law school to be referred to as “dean.”
|Shaping the Bar and the Profession|
|Stanford’s law school was at the forefront of efforts to institute the California Bar exam, which was added to the requirements to practice law in California in 1919. The law school was accredited by the American Bar Association in 1923, the year the ABA began certifying law schools.Stanford’s law program was officially transformed into a modern professional school in 1924 when it began requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission. The same year, Stanford’s Board of Trustees adopted a resolution making the law school purely a graduate school. In 1932, the school added Master of Laws (LLM) and Doctor of the Science of Laws (SJD) degree options.|
|World War II and After|
World War II took a serious toll on the work and the population of Stanford’s law school. By the end of 1943, enrollment had dropped to only 30 students. The law school nonetheless maintained its high academic standards, and set out to grow its academic content to reflect national developments. As it became clear that government would play a greater role in the regulation of private affairs, administrative law, taxation, trade regulation, labor law, and related subjects became part of the curriculum.
The late 1940s and 1950s initiated a tidal wave of change. The law school opened a dormitory, Crothers Hall, in 1948, and relocated to larger quarters on the Outer Quadrangle in 1950. Also in 1948, the Stanford Law Review, headed by future Secretary of State Warren Christopher ’49, published its first issue.
Other milestones during the postwar period included the introduction of a moot court program and the graduation of two future justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, both class of 1952. Committed to offering legal training to a relatively small, carefully selected student body — an approach that still guides Stanford today — the law school maintained its enrollment at about 350 students.
|Era of Change|
Reflecting the political and social upheaval of the times, Stanford Law became more diverse and its student activities more varied in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In 1965, the law school admitted its first black student, Sallyanne Payton ’68. The same year, then-dean Bayless Manning created a new staff position focused on diversity and appointed Thelton Henderson to be the first assistant dean in charge of minority admissions. Now a senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Henderson developed an innovative recruitment strategy and pioneered Stanford Law’s efforts to diversify its student body. Under his leadership, minority enrollment increased from a single student to 20 percent of the student body. Today, Stanford Law enrolls—and counts among its graduates—a higher percentage of minority students than any of its peer schools.
Reflecting changes in the student body, student organizations grew to include the Environmental Law Society, the Stanford Chicano Law Student Association, the Women of Stanford Law and the Stanford Public Interest Law Foundation. In 1966, the law school began its first joint degree program, with the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 1972, the first woman professor, Barbara Babcock, and the first black professor, William Gould, joined the law school faculty. Also in the 1970s, the law school built and moved into its current home, Crown Quadrangle. President Gerald Ford, speaking at the 1975 dedication ceremony, extolled Stanford’s foundation as a “solid triad of law, learning and liberty.”
|BUILDING ON A FOUNDATION OF FIRSTS|
During the 1980s and ‘90s, Stanford Law consolidated its position as one of the nation’s top law schools. Highlights of this era include the launch of model programs in environmental law, business, intellectual property, and international law. Recognizing the necessity of experiential learning, the law school has developed a state–of–the art clinical program offering students closely supervised, pedagogically driven opportunities to work with actual clients. The first of these clinics was the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, organized by a group of Stanford Law students, which opened its doors in 1984.
In the 21st century, the law school has deepened its commitment to interdisciplinary education, working with graduate schools throughout the university to develop cooperative learning opportunities and joint degree programs. Students can now choose from 25 formal degrees in fields ranging from economics and public policy to bioengineering.
|EVOLVING AND LEADING|
Many things have changed since Stanford Law’s founding in 1893. Originally, drawn mainly from California, today students come from every region of the United States and every corner of the world. In 1893, admission was not competitive. Today, Stanford receives an average of 3,800 applicants for 180 seats. In 1893, the school offered only a handful of courses. Today, students can choose from nearly 280 courses through the law school alone, with hundreds more available in other parts of the university — and the possibility for students to initiate new courses.
Despite these advances, Stanford Law’s basic mission has not changed since Nathan Abbott’s day: We remain dedicated to upholding the highest standards of excellence in legal scholarship; to equipping lawyers — diligently, imaginatively, honorably — to serve clients and their communities; to leading our profession; and to collaborating as we work to address the challenges of our nation and our world.
About the Ralston Prize
Jackson H. Ralston was a distinguished international lawyer in the United States who died in 1945. His widow, Opal Ralston, first created a trust in 1972 as part of her own estate to establish the Jackson H. Ralston Prize in his memory and, in 2007, the Ralston Prize Fund was generously enhanced with an additional gift provided by Mr. Ralston’s great-nephew, Ira Randall, and his wife, Winona. The purpose of this prize is to advance the goals and honor the accomplishments of Jackson H. Ralston as evidenced by his activities in international relations from 1899 through 1945.learn more