Our History


Founded in 1817, Harvard Law School is the oldest continuously operating law school in the United States.

The Law School traces its origins to Isaac Royall, who in 1781 left land from his estate in nearby Medford to Harvard University, with the proceeds intended to "endow of a Professor of Laws at said college, or a Professor of Physics and Anatomy." Harvard took the opportunity to fund its first chair in law, and the Royall chair continues to support an HLS professor today, more than 200 years later.
In 1806, Royall’s heirs sold the rest of his estate and used the funds to establish a school of law at Harvard University. The Royall family coat-of-arms -- three stacked wheat sheaves beneath the university motto, Veritas -- was adopted as the school’s shield.

In 1827, the struggling young law school was down to only one faculty member and one student. In this year, an enterprising alumnus stepped in to save the school by establishing the Dane Professorship of Law, and insisting that the chair be given to Joseph Story, the nation's youngest Supreme Court justice. Story believed in the concept of an elite American law school, based on merit and dedicated to public service: a tradition that continues today. A second critical figure in the development of the Law School arrived on the campus in the 1870s. Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell believed that the study of law should be an interactive and disciplined form of education, in which students were challenged directly by teachers, and through which they learned to analyze cases for themselves. This Socratic method of instruction demanded new teaching spaces, and Austin Hall was built on the north side of Harvard Yard to accommodate the School's new vision.

Following Langdell's remarkable 25-year tenure, an elite group of men -- and two women -- have served as the School's Dean:

1870 – 1895, Christopher Columbus Langdell
1895 – 1910, James Barr Ames
1909 – 1910, Samuel Williston*
1910 – 1915, Ezra Ripley Thayer
1915 – 1916, Austin Wakeman Scott*
1916 – 1936, Roscoe Pound
1921 – 1922, Edward Henry Warren*
1925 – 1926, Joseph Warren*
1929 – 1929, Joseph Warren*
1929 – 1930, Joseph Henry Beale*
1936 – 1937, Edmund Morris Morgan*
1937 – 1946, James McCauley Landis
1942 – 1945, Edmund Morris Morgan*
1946 – 1967, Erwin Nathaniel Griswold
1948 – 1948, Robert Amory, Jr.*
1959 – 1959, Livingston Hall*
1967 – 1968, Andrew James Casner*
1968 – 1971, Derek Curtis Bok
1971 – 1981, Albert Martin Sacks
1981 – 1989, James Vorenberg
1989 – 2003, Robert C. Clark
2003 – 2009, Elena Kagan
2009 - 2009, Howell E. Jackson*
2009 - Present, Martha Minow

* indicates "acting" appointment.

Last modified: October 25, 2012

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