“Notice is hereby given that a law school is established at the University to commence on the first Wednesday in October next,” began the Aug. 9, 1817, advertisement in Boston’s Columbian Centinel, one of many newspapers and journals that touted the opening of a new law school, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It promised a program unlike any that had been offered in the nation before—bringing intellectual rigor to the study of law, “under the patronage of the University,” while still preparing graduates for practice in the profession.

HLS catalogue

Credit: HLS Historical and Special Collections An HLS catalogue (above) lists the names of the school’s first six students. Caleb Cushing’s career included serving in Congress and as U.S. attorney general. Samuel Edmund Sewall became an abolitionist who defended many individuals who had escaped slavery. Less is known about the other four students: Charles Moody Dustin, the first HLS graduate; Wyllis Lyman; William R. P. Washburn and John Waters Proctor.

Candidates for admission, announcements read, “must be graduates of some college,” or qualified after “five years study in the office of some Counsellor.” Those students who remained at least 18 months at the “University Law School” or “passed the residue of their noviciate” would be granted the new Bachelor of Laws degree.

By October, Charles Moody Dustin, a 20-year-old from Gardiner, Maine, was the first to enroll in the school. He was joined by five other young men over the course of the year.

Asahel Stearns, the first University Professor of Law, did most of the teaching and shouldered the day-to-day duties of running the school—everything from obtaining books for the library with the meager funds allotted him, to taking care of students who fell ill. He was an experienced practitioner who served as the district attorney of Middlesex County, credentials that enabled him to assess a young future lawyer’s readiness to practice. In addition to attending lectures, students took part in moot courts and debates and completed written assignments.

The six students attended classes on the first floor of College House Number 2, a two-story brick building in Harvard Square. Space was tight. One room served as a lecture hall, student meeting space and library. Stearns’ faculty office doubled as his law office. (Because his salary consisted of the tuition paid by the students, maintaining a private practice was a financial necessity.) There was also a closet-sized space designated for a librarian (but no money to hire one). Although not ideal, the building had at least one advantage—it was close to the Middlesex County Courthouse, which gave students easy access to observing court proceedings.

Asahel Stearns and Isaac Parker

Credit: HLS Historical and Special Collections Asahel Stearns (left) and Isaac Parker (right) were the first two HLS professors. Parker, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, is credited with the pioneering idea for a separate school of law at the university. Stearns served as University Professor of Law at Harvard Law School from 1817 to 1829.

College House

Credit: Boyd, William (Harvard College Class of 1796). Mathematical thesis, 1796. A North East view of the house of Samuel Webber, A.A.S., and of the Court House in Cambridge, by an actual Survey. HUC 8782.514 (60), Harvard University Archives College House Number 2 was the first home of Harvard Law School. It was situated near the Middlesex County Courthouse in Harvard Square (north of the present Harvard Coop building and across from Harvard Yard). The law school occupied three rooms of the house on the first floor. According to Andrew Preston Peabody, who wrote about the college houses in ”Harvard Reminiscences” (Boston, 1888), the upper stories of College House Number 2 were occupied by ”undergraduates who could not get rooms within the college-yard [and] by certain ancient resident graduates who had become waterlogged on their life-voyage, by preachers who could not find willing hearers, by men lingering on the threshold of professions for which they had neither the courage nor the capacity.”

Students also attended a series of lectures offered by Massachusetts’ Chief Justice Isaac Parker, the senior member of the law faculty, on topics ranging from U.S. constitutional law to natural law. Parker was the first holder of the Royall Professorship of Law, endowed in 1815 through the bequest of the family of Isaac Royall, a wealthy Antiguan plantation owner and slaveholder. Initially, Parker was charged with offering lectures in law to Harvard undergraduates, an experience that confirmed for him the merit of creating a professional law school at the university.

On May 14, 1817, Parker outlined his plan for a law school in a letter to the Harvard Corporation and proposed that they vote on establishing a professional school at the university “under the immediate care of a learned lawyer, whose attention would be principally directed to the instruction of his pupils [which] would afford opportunities for laying a foundation of professional knowledge.” The plan was approved on June 12, 1817, which could be considered the birthday of Harvard Law School.

From the Archives: Documenting Harvard Law School’s Founding
Click on the photos to enlarge.

Credit: Harvard University Archives UAI 5.100 Volume 8, Item 125. A Letter from Isaac Parker to the President and Fellows of Harvard University, [May 1817] regarding the establishment of a law school.

Credit: Harvard University Archives On May 14, 1817, the Harvard Corporation voted to establish a law school at the university. The vote is recorded in these handwritten minutes, which spanned several pages. The school would become the first of its kind in the country. Isaac Parker would be its senior faculty member.


Credit: Harvard University Archives UAI 5.100 Volume 8 Item 145 On July 5, 1817, Asahel Stearns wrote to Harvard University President John Kirkland to accept his appointment as the first University Professor of Law. Stearns served in this role until 1829.

Newspaper advertisement

Credit: Harvard University Archives Like many other newspapers and journals along the east coast, Boston’s Columbian Centinel ran an ad in 1817 announcing the establishment of a new law school in Cambridge. This news clipping from the Aug. 9, 1817 edition outlines the key benefits of the program to prospective students.