Genesis of a Law School

            He tracked down a man accused of poisoning the food of the Archbishop of Chicago and his 300 guests. He discovered a German spy who was using invisible ink to send messages overseas. He was called a “sphinx” on the front page of the New York Post on January 22, 1919.

            He was George Lillard, unlikely founder of what is now known as The University of Connecticut School of Law. His story is the story of the genesis of a law school.

            Born 1884 in Washington, Virginia, the son of the county sheriff, Lillard developed his interest in the law and in sleuthing at his father’s knee. Leaving Virginia for Washington, D.C., in his late teens, Lillard worked as a drugstore clerk and then as a tapestry weaver. He saved $1,000 and started a bakery, only to lose everything. He began to sell insurance during the day to afford attending law school at night at Georgetown University, one of the few evening law schools in the country at the time. After graduation he joined the Department of Justice.

            When the United States entered World War I, he was transferred to Connecticut, an important post as fifty-five percent of the country’s munitions were manufactured in this sate. A major part of his job as Special Agent in Charge was the investigation and prosecution of sedition. He was considered fair, tough, thorough, and patriotic and earned the admiration of business and political leaders throughout the state. This reputation earned him a position at the Travelers Insurance Company after the war.

            Two years later he founded a law school.

The Hartford College of Law

            By 1921, Lillard and other insurance executives felt that employees in the insurance industry needed to have a better understanding of the law. Travelers encouraged Lillard to offer night classes in law in a rented room at 94 Allyn Street paid for by student fees. Enrollment was forty-four, including seven women. The School’s purpose was to provide legal education for employees of Hartford-based insurance companies and of other local industrial and mercantile organizations. But the entrepreneurial Lillard quietly accepted anyone interested in the law.

            In its early years the School was seen as a small boon to the Connecticut business community. Employees were educated on their own time and with their own money. The School did not threaten the State Bar as courses offered received no official credit. But, by the late 1920’s, Lillard had developed two goals --- to have the School accredited by the American Bar Association and to have graduates of the School automatically eligible to take the Connecticut Bar exam. At that point controversy began to surround the school

Part of a National Trend

            While the Hartford College of Law grew out of a specific local economic demand, it was also part of a larger social and legal trend in the country. Immigrants wanted a chance to enter the legal profession to earn a better living and to gain greater social prestige. Night law schools first appeared in the 1870’s. Between 1890 and 1921 the number of night law schools grew from nine to forty-one, while the number of day law schools grew from fifty-one to eighty.

            The established bar increasingly was reluctant to make room for newcomers. It purported to be worried about standards. Given the dramatic rise in the number of law students there was room for some legitimate concern, but for many this concern was used as an excuse to exclude. Former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice, Louis Shapiro ’32, remembers that when he began his law studies in 1928, “There was hostility towards the School. It was not a welcome enterprise among the leading members of the Bar. They thought it was an intrusion on the status quo. Yet, without question, the School prepared me well.”

            The Honorable Douglass B. Wright ’37, currently Adjunct Professor of Law at the Law School, recalls, “The Bar was not pleased with the creation of the Hartford College of Law, but the insurance companies supported it strongly.”

            Perhaps Bob Peyton ’32 and ’51 is the most extreme victim of a Bar determined to frustrate the nascent law school and its graduates (see page 5).

            One notable member of the Bar, The Honorable Saul Berman, who served as President of the Hartford Board of Education, taught at the School for several years, his son, Harold, now Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory Law School, says that:

                     “The Bar during the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s was threatened by the numbers who might take away from the mystery elitism, and possible     profitability of the law. My father would not have shared this feeling. He was the son of a peddler. His sympathy was with the immigrants, not with the elitists, though he had friends on both sides.”

Support for Accreditation

             Hartford College of Law supporters continued to be insurance executives who combined an enlightened self-interest with a Yankee noblesse oblige. Both of the two local newspapers published editorials in favor of the merging school and wished it luck in its goal of becoming accredited. Lillard had secured very respected members of the Bar as teachers and trustees, including: William Brosmith, Farewell Knapp, Cyril Coleman, Reinhard Gideon, Charles Wells Gross, Roger W. Davis, Harold Mitchell, and James Knox.

            One of Lillard’s greatest weapons in his drive for accreditation was Roscoe Pound, Dean of Harvard Law School, who spoke at the 1932 commencement, as former President of the American Association of Law Schools, his speech was seen as a symbolic act by the accrediting arm of the American Bar Association. (Lillard reserved front row seats for members of the Connecticut Bar, all of whom had been invited as special guests.) Six months after Dean Pound’s appearance, the School was officially accredited and its students were allowed to take the State Bar Exam by virtue of being a graduate of an accredited law school.

            Founded by a taciturn Virginia farm boy who served Connecticut patriotically during the war, supported by an insurance industry that needed properly trained employees, the Hartford College of Law was very integrated into the community. Says Professor Harold Berman, “The University of Connecticut School of Law is very rooted in Hartford and in Connecticut.”

            Shortly after raising the money to buy and renovate the Jacobus Mansion on Woodland Street, George Lillard dies. He was not a scholar, but he respected learning. He was not a rich man, but he raised the money the School needed. He was not born into a prestigious social class, but he effectively maneuvered among those who had been. Lillard had become possessed by an equalitarian ideal. His life reflected the emerging American possibility of economic and social mobility within a generation. The University of Connecticut School of Law is testimony in perpetuity to his commitment.

            Lillard wanted to give people a chance to better themselves through education. The graduates of the school he started have done just that. They have become governors, judges, legal aid lawyers, attorneys, prosecutors, politicians active bar members, businessmen and women, professors and practitioners of every sort. As its history has unfolded, the School has made its way from Niles Street to the former campus of the Hartford Seminary. No doubt, George Lillard would be pleased that his School is now on the campus of his friend, The Reverend Doctor William Douglas Mackenzie, the President of Hartford Seminary.

            The sphinx might even smile