When Did the Milwaukee Law School Actually Begin?

Posted on Categories Marquette Law School History

For many years, the program for the Marquette University Law School commencement has identified the Law School’s origin with the establishment of the Milwaukee Law Class in 1892. In fact, in 1992, the law school celebrated its centennial based on this assumption. According to the conventional account, the Milwaukee Law Class was begun by a group of young Milwaukeeans preparing for the Wisconsin bar who wished to meet together to study and to listen to lectures from established members of the bench and bar. Over the next several years, the Milwaukee Law Class evolved into the Milwaukee Law School, which was taken over by Marquette in 1908.

The only problem with this story is that several contemporary (to the 1890’s) sources identified the school’s date of origin as a year other than 1892.

First of all, the Milwaukee Law Class of 1892, which clearly existed, was not the first such group in Milwaukee. In 1885, the Wisconsin legislature made bar passage a good bit more difficult when it removed the licensing authority from state’s circuit court judges and vested it in a single state board of bar examiners. The examiners met at specified times — unlike the judges who could schedule examinations at any time and who were notoriously lax in their administration — and from a very early date (possibly 1885) administered the examination in written form.

To pass such an examination one had to know what the law was in a variety of areas, something that was not necessarily easy to learn while working as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. (Only graduates of the law program at the University of Wisconsin were exempt from the examination.) The Milwaukee Sentinel reported the organization of a “law class” in Milwaukee as early April of 1886, so there is no reason to think that the 1892 law class was unique. There were probably several “law classes” begun between 1885 and 1892.

The Milwaukee Law School was a fairly low-key institution, and in fact does not even show up in the Milwaukee city directory until 1903. The first recorded reference that we have to the Milwaukee Law School is in the 1897 report of the United States Commissioner of Education, and that publication lists the year of the school’s founding as 1893. The 1893 date was repeated in subsequent volumes of the Commissioner’s Report and in the 1907 Annual Report of the American Bar Association, which compiled data on the nation’s law schools. In 1921, when Alfred Zantzinger Reed compiled his monumental report on the history of legal education in the United States, he accepted 1893 as the date of the school’s founding.

However, the 1906 Milwaukee Law School catalog, a copy of which is in the collection of the Milwaukee Historical Society, identifies the school as beginning not in 1892 or 1893, but in 1894. In contrast, an article in the 1907 American Educational Review listed the Milwaukee Law School as beginning in 1892, with the Milwaukee Law Class. Former Marquette Dean Robert Boden (1968-1984) wrote in his unpublished history of the early years of the Law School that the Milwaukee Law School took that name in 1896. Although Boden was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the Law School, the source that he cites for the 1896 date actually makes no such claim.

So, did the Milwaukee Law School begin in 1892, 1893, 1894, or 1896? The question is further complicated by the fact that the school operated without a legislative charter until 1908 — since it did not award law degrees, it did not need one. It finally obtained a state charter only so that it could more easily sell itself to Marquette University. (Since it had no building and no library, the charter at least gave it something to transfer along with its good will and name recognition.)

Here is what I think happened. Among the members of the 1892 Milwaukee Law Class, which was not the first such organization in Milwaukee, was William Churchill, newly arrived in Milwaukee from Michigan, where he had already been admitted to the bar. Churchill helped out with the lectures in 1892, and the following year he joined forces with Edward Spencer, an Ohio-educated lawyer, who had returned to his native Milwaukee that year to operate the family-owned Spencerian Business College, where he taught commercial law. Since Spencer was already in the business of non-degree-granting business education, it was a logical extension of his operation to offer training in law for a fee. Moreover, since the Spencerian Business College already rented a number of rooms in a downtown Milwaukee office building for its classes, the same rooms were available to the proprietors at no additional charge.

Spencer and Churchill simply converted the informal educational setting of the law class into a money-making proposition. Because both were members of the bar, and presumably capable teachers, would-be lawyers were willing to pay for their instruction.

Regardless of when the two adopted the name Milwaukee Law School for their enterprise, the key change was charging their students for the benefit of the lectures. This change presumably happened in 1893, the year that Spencer arrived in Milwaukee. This is presumably why the Commissioner of Education used 1893 as the date of the school’s founding.

It also seems likely that the two began calling their “school” the Milwaukee Law School in 1894, hence the school catalog’s use of 1894 as the date of the institution’s beginning. Spencer and Churchill were joined by former University of Wisconsin law professor Lynn Pease in 1897, and the three of them operated the Milwaukee Law School until it merged with Marquette in the summer of 1908. (In fact, the three made up the bulk of the original faculty of the Marquette University College of Law after the merger.)

It is also easy to understand how that over time William Churchill, who remained affiliated with Marquette for several decades after 1908 and who lived until 1954, came to associate the founding of the Law School with his participation in the 1892 Milwaukee Law Class, which coincided with his arrival in the Cream City. Churchill’s account, which was not contradicted by Spencer, took on added force as he outlived all of the members of the 1892 law class who might have contradicted his version.

In fact, a 1941 obituary for lawyer John J. Gregory, published in the Wisconsin Reports, gives an entirely different account of the organization of the Milwaukee Law Class which makes no reference to Churchill or Spencer, and which implies that the Milwaukee Law Class may already have been in existence when Churchill arrived in Milwaukee in 1892.

At this point, it doesn’t really matter, but it seems to me that the founding year ought to be either 1886, the year of the first Milwaukee Law Class (actually called the Milwaukee Law Student Association), or 1893, the year that Churchill and Spencer started charging for legal instruction. If we opt for 1886, then we are only a year away from the 125th anniversary of the founding of an alternative to law-office education in Milwaukee.

2 thoughts on “When Did the Milwaukee Law School Actually Begin?”

  1. Today, I discovered a copy of the 1907-08 catalog of the Milwaukee Law School in the university archives at Raynor Library. Although the catalog was published in the fall of 1907, about eight months before the merger of the Milwaukee Law School and Marquette, the document announces that the independent school was to soon be the law school of Marquette University. (Details of the financial arrangements apparently delayed the merger for several months.)

    The catalog also contains a short description regarding the relationship of the Milwaukee Law Class and the Milwaukee Law School. The bulletin credits the origins of the Milwaukee Law School to the Milwaukee Law Class, which it states was founded in 1892. (Of course, none of the three professors who ran the Milwaukee Law School were living in Milwaukee prior to 1892.) The founding of the Milwaukee Law School, in contrast, is dated in 1893, the next year. That date is consistent with most of the contemporary sources.

    The only misleading claim is that the 1892 Milwaukee Law Class was the beginning of the “law classes” in Milwaukee. Because of other sources, we know that such arrangements dated back at least to 1885.

  2. In his 1924 remarks celebrating the opening of the new Law Building (later named Sensenbrenner Hall), President Albert Fox, S.J., praised the Law School for its accomplishments over the past thirty years. If Fox was intending to be precise, he must have assumed that the Milwaukee Law School began in 1894 (and not 1892 or 1893).

    The confusion as to the actual date of origin continues to this day.

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