Check out the Law Library Display Case

wooden display case

Have you ever wondered why law school is three years rather than one or two? The display in the Law Library explores how Iowa Law Deans not only helped change and improve legal education in Iowa but were instrumental in shaping legal education for law schools across the nation. Noëlle Sinclair, Head of Special Collections in the Law Library, used documents, photographs, and legal research techniques to bring this story to life. 

Q. When Iowa Law was founded in 1865, was any law school training required to be a lawyer? 

A. No, at that time, the law in Iowa only required “the requisite learning” to take the bar exam. While Iowa Law offered a one-year course of study, many aspiring lawyers chose to apprentice with a practicing lawyer, known as “reading law.” 

Many of the early lawyers in Iowa read law, including Belle Mansfield, the first woman licensed to practice in the U.S. She read law in her brother’s law firm in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. The first Dean of Iowa Law, William Gardiner Hammond, also read law in a Brooklyn, New York, law firm. 

Q. What role did Iowa Law and the Iowa Legislature have in increasing the law school training requirement? 

A. Iowa Law School was founded amidst discussions both in Iowa and across the country about how to ensure lawyers were trained to be ethical, skilled attorneys who could contribute to the development of an educated and flourishing country.  

Iowa Supreme Court judges Chester C. Cole and George W. Wright, alongside Dean Hammond, saw Iowa Law as a conduit to educate lawyers not only in the skilled practice of law, but as contributing members of society. A single year seemed too short for Dean Hammond, who worked with the Iowa Legislature to increase the requirement to two years. By the time Dean Hammond left Iowa Law in 1881, his efforts were gaining traction. However, it wasn’t until 1884 that the Legislature enacted a two-year legal education requirement. By the late 1890s, there was a movement to standardize legal education. 

In 1900, leading legal education pioneers from many prestigious law schools were invited by the ABA Section of Legal Education to a meeting in Saratoga, New York. Attendees included Ezra Thayer and James Ames from Harvard, John Henry Wigmore from Northwestern, and Judge Cole and L. G. Kinne from Iowa Law. It was during this meeting the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) was founded. Its goals included determining what legal education could be and creating policies and standards to achieve those goals. One of the standards set forth was a requirement that the course of study be three years. Iowa Law Dean Emlin McClain, the second President of AALS, worked with the Iowa Legislature to meet the new standard, which resulted in increasing Iowa’s legal education requirement to three years. 

Q.  Why trace the history of Iowa legal education? 

A. The idea for this exhibit came from wondering how three years became the magical number for law school. Today, law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association, which requires a three-year program. But when Iowa Law was founded in 1865, the Iowa Legislature determined the education necessary to take the Bar exam. Tracing legislative history is something the Law Library’s reference librarians teach often. Using the Credits (or History) lines in the Iowa Code, it is possible to see the evolution of the law school requirement from none to three years. This exhibit demonstrates how legal research can illuminate the interesting stories woven into the evolution of the law. 

Q. What’s next for the display case?  

A.  International students have always been important members of the University and our Law School community. After Winter Break, our new exhibit will feature the Law School’s first international students from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.