The Founding Years
Brooklyn Law School was founded in 1901 by William Payson Richardson and Norman Heffley in the basement of a business school owned by Mr. Heffley. The modest facility on Ryerson Street barely accommodated the pioneering class of thirteen first-year students and five second-year students. Mr. Heffley became the president of the Board of Trustees and Mr. Richardson was named dean. Dean Richardson was a prolific legal scholar who wrote textbooks on commercial law, contracts, guaranty and suretyship law, and his most notable work, Richardson on Evidence. He shepherded the Law School from its infancy until 1945.
In order to secure degree-conferring authority for its first graduating class of 1903, the Law School became affiliated with St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and maintained this affiliation until the mid-1940s.
In 1904, the Law School relocated its headquarters to the historic Brooklyn Eagle Building, located at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Opening the Door of Opportunity
Since its earliest days, Brooklyn Law School has occupied a special position among law schools with its tradition of welcoming students regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Archival photographs show that as early as 1909, and perhaps even before that, African-American students and women attended the Law School. And during the economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s, the Law School earned a reputation as an institution open to students who could not afford to attend more elite schools, or who had been denied admission to those schools because of discriminatory admission practices.
By 1928 the Law School had outgrown the Brooklyn Eagle Building, and the first of its custom-designed buildings was constructed at 375 Pearl Street. The school would remain at that location, known as Richardson Hall, for the next 40 years.
Shortly after moving into Richardson Hall, the Law School established an evening program that thrived during the Great Depression, and enrollment grew to over 1,500. In 1937, the Law School achieved a significant milestone when it was accredited by the American Bar Association.
A Time of Change
The 1940s marked a significant turning-point for the Law School. With many young men serving in the armed forces during the mid-1930's, low enrollment was compounded by St. Lawrence University's decision to close the Law School. Faced with an imminent "death sentence," faculty members and alumni rallied successfully to buy the school back from St. Lawrence and in 1943, Brooklyn Law School became independent. The timing was ideal; by the end of World War II, Brooklyn Law School had established itself with a successful refresher law program for returning veterans, and enrollment increased dramatically.
Dean Richardson passed away in 1945, and Justice William B. Carswell, a sitting judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, was appointed dean. He served until his death in 1953.
Jerome Prince, a founder of the Brooklyn Law Review, and its first editor-in-chief, led the Law School as dean throughout the 1950s and 1960s. At the time of his appointment as dean, he had been a long-standing member of the faculty and had served as vice dean and associate dean for many years. He was a renowned evidence scholar, and served in many high-profile public service positions. Under Dean Prince's leadership, the programs of the Law School were modernized; the faculty grew, the library was rebuilt, and the endowment fund grew substantially.
In 1968, ground was broken at 250 Joralemon Street, our current location. The ten-story building opened in 1969, and that inauguration marked the beginning of sweeping changes at the Law School. Raymond E. Lisle, who became dean in 1971, was instrumental in revising the School's curriculum during this period of rapid growth. Dean Lisle oversaw the conversion of the curriculum from one that was almost entirely prescribed to a broad elective program following the first year of study. He also ushered in the first of several clinics, introduced joint degree programs, created a professional placement and career planning office, and launched the Brooklyn Journal of International Law. The faculty also expanded significantly, with the addition of many new professors from diverse backgrounds. Smaller classes became more prevalent and the overall teacher/student ratio was reduced. Under Dean Lisle's administration, the School became a member of the Association of American Law Schools.
When Dean Lisle resigned in 1971, I. Leo Glasser, a Family Court Judge and long-time member of the School's faculty, was appointed dean. Dean Glasser implemented several innovations in the School's academic program during his six years as dean, including the introduction of a unique research and writing program, and launched the Annual Fund Campaign. He was appointed to the federal bench in 1983.
A School on the Move
David G. Trager, who had been a member of the faculty for ten years, became the Law School's sixth dean. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was also a former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. During his tenure, the School made tremendous progress, gaining a national reputation for outstanding legal education. The faculty grew considerably, as Dean Trager skillfully recruited both accomplished and rising legal scholars who were experts in many legal fields. Several innovative clinics and improved skills training programs were added to the curriculum. Dean Trager was also instrumental in expanding student housing by facilitating the acquisition of several residence halls in the surrounding neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. He also spearheaded the construction of a major addition to the Law School's main building, which opened in 1994.
Upon Dean Trager's appointment as a judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Joan G. Wexler became interim dean. A graduate of Yale Law School, she had served as the Law School's associate dean for academic affairs for six years and taught courses in family law, estate planning, and trusts and estates. In 1994 she was appointed dean, becoming the first woman to head Brooklyn Law School, and among the first female law school deans in U.S. history.
The Law School Today
Under President Wexler's leadership, Brooklyn Law School's national reputation has been significantly enhanced. She has instituted an expanded Upperclass Writing Program, continued to expand clinical opportunities, completed a high-tech renovation of all classrooms, launched innovative new lecture series and visiting scholar programs, and created the first endowed faculty chairs in the School's history. She was the guiding force behind the design and construction of the School's award-winning student residence, Feil Hall, which opened in 2005.
Dean Richardson would no doubt be proud of the Law School today. From its modest beginnings on Ryerson Street in 1901, Brooklyn Law School now commands a visually striking and technologically sophisticated campus. Our stunning new library contains a half million volumes, three elegant reading rooms, 30 conference rooms where students can gather for group study, and lounge areas where students can read and unwind between classes. Our new, remodeled classrooms provide flexible seating for small or large groups, convert into courtrooms for our moot court and trial advocacy programs, and are designed to make use of video technology and computer-assisted instructional materials. But even more importantly, Dean Richardson would be proud of our world-class faculty. Their contributions to legal scholarship, public service, and the practice of law, as well as their devotion to the intellectual development of our students, are what makes Brooklyn Law School such an outstanding institution.