Look to Your Left, Then Look to Your Right: Marquette University Law School, Fall 1919

Posted on Categories Legal History, Marquette Law School History

At all most every law school founded before 1960, a story is told about a past dean who addressed incoming classes by telling them: “Look to your left and then to your right, and three years from now, only one of you will still be here.”  The softer version of the story ended “and only two of you will still be here.”

The story is probably apocryphal in its origins, although it was certainly used by later deans to emphasize the difficulty of legal study.  Today, the story is usually told to illustrate how lax legal education has become in the modern era.

To the extent that that this story reflects past reality, it is actually a commentary on how easy it was to get into most American law schools before the great surge in applications that began around 1970.  Even Harvard Law School did not reject a qualified applicant until 1939 (although it is true that Harvard had stiffer entrance requirements than most law schools in the first half of the twentieth century.)

Most law schools accepted all applicants who met their minimum entry requirements and then let the chips fall.  Those who could handle the work continued to graduation.  Those who couldn’t either flunked out or dropped out.  

History does not record whether Dean Max Schoetz delivered the “look to your left” speech when he greeted the entering class at the Marquette Law School in the fall of 1919.  But if it did, and had he used the softer version of the story, his prediction would have been borne out by subsequent events.  There were 92 students enrolled in the first post-World War I day division entering class, and only 66 made it to the second year.  One of those who did not was Milwaukee native Pat O’Brien, who later became famous as a Hollywood actor (e.g., The Front Page, The Knute Rockne Story).

Whether O’Brien and the other 26 students who didn’t continue on for a second year flunked out or merely decided to pursue a different path in life is difficult to determine.  To remain eligible to continue, students had to pass more than half their courses, and 70 constituted a passing grade.

Admission requirements for the law school in 1919 were fairly modest.  Ordinarily a student had to be a high school graduate and have attended college for one year.  However, if an applicant was a high school graduate who had not yet attended college, he or she was allowed to enroll in a four-year program at the law school in which most second-year courses were taken in the college—essentially to meet the one year of college requirement.  This turned out to be a popular alternative, particularly for veterans like O’Brien who were anxious to get on with their careers.  Twenty-nine of the 66 students who entered the day program in the fall of 1919 and continued on for a second year were admitted under this option.  Students who were not high school graduates could opt to take a special examination, and if they passed it they were admitted as well.  Anyone could enroll in the four-year night program whether or not they had finished high school, and 63 individuals did.  The total first year enrollment of 155 in the fall of 1919 was the largest in the school’s history.

Under a recent change necessitated by Association of American Law School guidelines, night students were not eligible to receive a law degree from Marquette beginning with the 1919-1920 academic year, but their attendance did qualify them to take the Wisconsin bar exam.  The diploma privilege had not yet been extended to Marquette, so all its law students were required to pass the bar exam before they could begin law practice.  Wisconsin also required that applicants for admission to the bar have completed a high school course or its equivalent, and a few evening students were attending law school and high school at the same time.

Only four students in the day division and only one in the night group were listed as holding college degrees prior to beginning law school.  Most of the students, day or night, hailed from Wisconsin.  Only 11 of 92 first-year day students are listed in the Law School Bulletin as being from outside Wisconsin, and except for a single student from Montana, the others were all from the Midwest: Illinois (3), Iowa (3), Minnesota (2), and Michigan (2).  Only three of the 92 were female.

Ironically, the night division (known as the “Owls”) was geographically a slightly more diverse group.   Out-of-state students accounted for 13 percent of the night class, just ahead of the 12 percent for the day division.  While there were also students from Minnesota (2), the night class featured individual students from the more distant venues of Ohio, South Dakota, Montana, New Hampshire, Virginia, and the Philippines.  Two of the evening students were female and one, Edward Snyder, was a medical doctor.

Attrition was even higher among the ranks of the night class with only 39 of the 63 night students returning for a second year.  Among those not returning were most of the out-of-state students and Dr. Snyder.

In the aftermath of World War I, which had disrupted the vocational plans of so many American men, the law school appeared to be reluctant to impose barriers in the way of anyone who wanted to become a lawyer.  However, it did not appear to be willing to carry along students who were unable or unwilling to meet its academic standards.  It is worth remembering, however, that law school education was not a prerequisite for bar admission in Wisconsin (and most states) in the early 1920’s.  Those who left law school were free to enter apprenticeship arrangements and qualify for the bar that way.  (In fact, they could still count their unsuccessful law school year or years toward the state’s three- year “law study” requirement.)

The following is the curriculum in effect for first-year day students during the 1919-1920 academic year.  The number in parentheses is the number of hourly meetings each week for that particular course.


The Study of Cases (1)

Criminal Law (2)

Criminal Procedure (1)

Contracts I (3)

Torts I (2)

Personal Property (2)

Common Law Pleading I (1)

Natural Law (1)

Total Hours:  13


Contracts II (3)

Torts II (2)

Common Law Pleading II (2)

Agency (2)

Equity (2)

Real Property I (1)

Natural Law II (1)

Legal Bibliography (1)

Total Hours: 14.

The Natural Law course was taught by the university president, Rev. Herbert Noonan; Personal Property and Legal Bibliography were taught by Dean Schoetz.

Each course had a written examination at the end of the term, which meant that full-time day-division students took 15 exams during their first year of law school, seven in fall and eight in the spring.  Students in the 4-year program — those who lacked prior college credits — took year-long courses in English and Argumentation in lieu of Contracts I & II, Criminal Procedure, Personal Property, Agency, and Equity.

5 thoughts on “Look to Your Left, Then Look to Your Right: Marquette University Law School, Fall 1919”

  1. Gordon, any idea on the 1919 tuition in 2010 dollars? In legal education generally, I would guess that tuition has increased quite a bit since 1919, and that this trend has something to do with reduced attrition rates. Students would be pretty reluctant to pay what most law schools charge these days if they knew that they had only a one-third chance of graduating.

  2. The Marquette Law School tuition for full-time students in 1919-1920 was $100, plus $10 for a matriculation and athletic fee. The 1919 Law Bulletin estimated that books for first year students would cost $30 and that average living expenses would be $276 for the school. These numbers add up to a total of $416 for the academic year.

    How much would $416 in 1919 be worth in today’s dollars? That is not a simple question.

    If we adjust the $416 figure to 2009 dollars using the historically adjusted consumer price index, $416 in 1919 would be the equivalent of $5160 today. By that measure, the cost of law school in 1919 seems absolutely cheap.

    On the other hand, converting past dollars into present ones is a tricky venture. Looking just at consumer prices (as the CPI does) doesn’t necessarily produce a realistic equivalent.

    For example, if we focus on the Gross Domestic Product per capita, rather than consumer prices, $416 in 1919 is the equivalent of $25,900 today, which is much closer to current costs.

    On the other hand, were we to focus on what $416 meant in 1919 as a relative share of the Gross Domestic Product, the contemporary equivalent would be $75,700, which makes today’s prices look like a bargain.

    It is also worth noting that today’s first-time bar examination failure rate of between 20 and 25% does not seem to deter students from enrolling in law school. I am not sure how closely law school enrollment rates are related to prospects of success.

    If anyone wants to do the calculations themselves, they should take a look at the webpage of the Economic History Association, http://EH.net/hmit and the website http://www.measuringworth.com

  3. It is worth noting that in 1919, the estimated cost of room and board, $276, was almost double the cost of tuition, fees, and books, $140. According to the current law school web page tuition, fee and book costs now exceed room, board and personal expenses by a margin of more than two to one–$37,782 to $15,450.

  4. Gordon, I find the historical posts about MU’s curriculum fascinating. Do you have any idea what the content was in “The Study of Cases” and “Common Law Pleading” courses? Where is the best place to start if I want to research which courses (from the start of the law school) may have included instruction in argumentation, etc., the things we teach in legal writing?

  5. Jessica

    I wish I knew more about this. Marquette started requiring an Introduction to Law course in its day division in 1911. Over the next four years it began to focus on reading cases. Even though the law school was not committed to the case method until Max Schoetz became dean in 1916, many of the texts were casebooks. In 1915, the course began to be called the Study of Cases. My hunch is that what we now think of as legal writing was divided between this course, Schoetz’ Legal Bibliography class, and the practice court which was part of the upper level curriculum.

    It is interesting that students who enrolled in the law school without one year of college were requried to take a year long course on argumentation offered by the college.

    Thanks for the kind words.


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