History of the School of Law


Washington and Lee University is located in Lexington, Virginia,in the scenic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.In 1749, the pioneers of the Valley of Virginia founded a small classical school which became known as Liberty Hall. In 1796 George Washington gave the school an endowment gift so generous that it still pays a part of the cost of the education for every student. The school expressed its gratitude to the first President of the United States by changing the name of the school to Washington College.After Appomattox in 1865, Robert E. Lee accepted the presidency of the college. Lee greatly expanded the range of instruction and made the college a national institution. Upon the death of General Lee, the name of the institution was changed to Washington and Lee University.


Washington and Lee University's School of Law had its origin in the Lexington Law School, established by Judge John W. Brockenbrough in 1849. Although the trustees of Washington Academy had considered and even actively sought a law professor in 1804, it was not until after the Civil War, during Gen. Robert E. Lee's presidency, that a department of law became associated with the College.

In June 1866, Brockenbrough's school was tenuously annexed to the College and became known as the "School of Law and Equity." By that time, legal instruction in the United States had shifted from private study with established lawyers or judges to attendance at schools of law.

In 1870 the trustees appointed John Randolph Tucker, former Virginia Attorney General and general counsel for the B&O Railroad in Baltimore, to the law faculty.   Later,  Mr. Tucker was appointed first Dean of the law school, and Charles A. Graves, who had received his bachelor's, master's, and law degrees from the University, was named assistant professor.  Mr. Tucker resigned in 1875 after his election to Congress, and Mr. Graves succeeded him as Dean.  Upon his retirement in 1887,  Mr. Tucker returned to the law school. Under his renewed direction, and because of his national prominence and numerous honors (which included the presidency of the American Bar Association), the law school thrived in the last decade of the century. 

There was no separate building to house the law school through the end of the nineteenth century. When Henry St. George Tucker, son of the first Dean of the School of Law, John Randolph Tucker, himself became Dean in 1899, he undertook a successful campaign to raise funds for a building that would both house the school and serve as a memorial to his father. The John Randolph Tucker Memorial Building was completed in 1900. The original Tucker Hall, unlike other campus buildings, was constructed of stone.

Secure in its new quarters, the School of Law continued to grow during the first decades of the new century, reorganizing and expanding its curriculum and instituting more rigorous admission standards. It was during this prosperous period that many of the School's eminent alumni received their training. Perhaps the two most distinguished graduates of this period were Newton D. Baker, B.L., '94, Secretary of War in President Wilson's Cabinet and eloquent champion of the League of Nations, and John W. Davis, A.B.,'92, B.L., '95, Congressman, ambassador to Great Britain, and 1924 Democratic candidate for President of the United States. For a short time following his graduation, Mr. Davis was also assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee. 

On December 16, 1934, Tucker Hall was destroyed by fire. Steps were immediately taken to replace it with a more architecturally harmonious building. In little more than a year, a new Tucker Hall stood in its place.The law school's prestigious annual Tucker Lecture, named in honor of the late John Randolph Tucker, was established by the Washington & Lee board of trustees in 1949. 

World War II all but emptied the law school. Only a handful of professors and students remained, but at the War's conclusion students flocked to the law school in unprecedented numbers. The catalogues from the '50s and '60s record a continuing enrollment increase and a growing geographical diversity in the student body. The faculty grew proportionally to preserve the close teacher-student contact which has always characterized the University.

These decades were more than a time of physical growth. Courses rapidly developed in new legal areas, such as tax, labor, international, family, medical, and urban law. Co-curricular activities, in addition to the long established moot court and the Washington and Lee Law Review, were added to supplement classroom instruction. The Juris Doctor degree replaced the LL.B. degree in 1970. Two years later, women were first admitted to the School of Law.
By the early '70s, the critical space shortage in Tucker Hall had become insurmountable. After many renovations, there remained no additional capacity for expansion. In 1972 the University received a landmark gift of $9 million from Frances and Sydney Lewis of Richmond to support development of the School of Law and to create a new and innovative center for the study of law in society. Lewis Hall, the third home of the Washington and Lee School of Law, was completed and occupied in 1976 and dedicated on May 7, 1977.

1999 was the 250th anniversary of the founding of Washington and Lee University, and the 150th anniversaryof the founding of the Law School.