The region’s first law school retraces a remarkable past that has surpassed its founder’s dream of creating “a law school of permanent character.”
os Angeles without lawyers: the idea may seem laughable, but it was once a very real concern. Only a century ago, university-educated attorneys had to be imported to handle the legal affairs of this booming frontier town of 100,000 people. With the nearest law school 400 miles to the north, a generation of Angelenos trained themselves for the bar the same way they might prepare to become blacksmiths: through apprenticeship. But while an ill-prepared smithy could ruin a horse, an ill-prepared attorney could ruin a business, a human life or even a whole community.
Enter the Los Angeles Law School, the precursor to today’s respected USC Law School.

The USC Law School entering class, in 1914.

On June 10, the school celebrates its centennial and reflects on its present status as one of the nation’s leaders in legal education. This is the story of how a series of informal evening lectures, initiated in 1896 in the courtroom of one Judge David C. Morrison, grew into “a law school of permanent character,” in the words of James Brown Scott, the Harvard- and Heidelberg-educated attorney who was the school’s founding preceptor and first dean. How the fledgling institution made diversity its earliest hallmark. How innovation was embraced every step of the way. And how generations of deans, faculty, students and alumni have brought honor upon their school through a century of professional achievements.
Like Los Angeles itself, the USC Law School has become a national player. In academic circles, it enjoys a reputation for intellectual vitality. Nearly half the faculty hold doctoral or master’s degrees in addition to their JDs. Uniquely multidisciplinary in character, the school has strong programs in law and economics, law and humanities and clinical legal education.
Its student body is equally exciting. Last year’s entering class of 200 was culled from nearly 4,000 applicants. No longer just a regional school, USC Law School attracts graduates from more than 100 colleges and universities across the country and abroad. Diversity remains a trademark: nearly 40 percent of students belong to an ethnic minority, and 45 percent are women. With a faculty-student ratio of about 13:1, the Law School retains the feeling of a tight-knit scholarly community where students, faculty and graduates build lifelong bonds of personal and professional loyalty.
Founding dean James Brown Scott in 1898. Patriotism prompted him to resign and serve in the Spanish-American War.
Gone are the peripatetic, makeshift quarters (which early in the school’s history had ranged from rented offices to an autopsy room in the USC Medical Col-lege). Today, the Law School’s spacious facilities do much to advance the legal learning process and promote intellectual inquiry. Besides plentiful classrooms and lecture halls, the school’s five-level Elvon and Mabel Musick Building encompasses a moot courtroom, a state-of-the-art law library, information technology and online research centers, clinical and journal offices, lounges and a cafeteria.
Philanthropy – much of it from alumni – has lifted the school to new heights. With a market value now exceeding $100 million, its endowment ranks among the nation’s 10 largest private law school endowments. Chairs and professorships, a key indicator of academic competitiveness, have grown apace, now totaling 29 (compared to just four in 1980).
Also driving the school’s reputation are its graduates. Today as in years past, the accomplishments of these Trojan attorneys in private practice, public service, government, teaching, the judiciary and business add luster to USC’s name.
Over time, Scott’s words – “a law school of permanent character” – have taken on weightier meaning. When he spoke them in 1896, the school’s founder was invoking the idea of a properly chartered school, in contrast to the prevailing “study associations” that periodically formed and disbanded when apprentices were cramming for the state bar exam. A century later, the USC Law School has proven to be far more than just “permanent”: the emphasis now falls on the word “character.”
In honor of the Law School’s centennial celebration, USC Trojan Family Magazine presents a history in photos, highlighting the events and individuals that elevated USC into the top echelon of American legal education.


Los Angeles Law Students Association is formed. Eager law apprentices took the lead in promoting “organized” legal education in Los Angeles. In 1896, Judge David C. Morrison “threw open the doors of his courtroom” for 36 law apprentices – five of them women – to hear prominent local attorneys praise the concept of a formal law school. James Brown Scott, who was to head the nascent institution, exhorted the students to create a “law school of permanent character.”

The Los Angeles Law School is incorporated. Its 11-member board of trustees included a woman, self-made agricultural magnate Harriett W.R. Strong.

Program becomes affiliated with USC; the university awards degrees for study completed at the Los Angeles Law School. As early as 1885, USC officials had contemplated forming a law school. This affiliation realized the dream of early advocates Robert Widney (left) and George I. Cochran, both Los Angeles attorneys and USC trustees.
James Brown Scott’s premature resignation put the new law school’s “permanent character” to the test. There followed a succession of “annual deans”: Lewis A. Groff (1900-01), George L. Sanders (1901-02) and Daniel M. Hammack (1902-04). Starting in 1900, the school moved six times in as many years.

USC begins awarding law degrees. Gavin W. Craig receives the first diploma.

Building Permanence

University of Wisconsin-educated contracts expert Frank M. Porter LLM ’10 is appointed dean. In his 23 years at the helm, Porter struggled to bring permanence to all aspects of law school life. He stabilized the faculty, strengthened academic standards and promoted a diverse student body. A permanent law school building was finally dedicated on the University Park Campus in 1926.

Frederick W. Houser JD ’00, one of the school’s first graduates, becomes the first alumnus to serve on the bench. After graduating, he spent a term in the California Assembly before his election to the Los Angeles County superior court in 1906; he later rose to the appellate court and the state supreme court.

The USC Law School gains membership in the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Schools. These two bodies accredit all American law schools.

Tajo Building, the law school’s home after 1911.
Law school moves to Tajo Building. After 15 years of changing headquarters, the law school found stability in this downtown building, at the corner of First Street and Broadway. The school remained at this site until 1925.

Stare Decisis – the school’s yearbook – reflects an increasingly diverse and international student body. Japanese, Filipino, Armenian and Russian Jewish students are represented in photographs, along with women and the school’s second black student. The yearbook includes a section devoted exclusively to “co-education.” A year earlier, students had founded Phi Delta Delta, the nation’s first women’s law student sorority.

Mabel Walker Willebrandt JD ’16, LLM ’17, graduates. Arguably the most prominent American woman attorney from the 1920s through the ’40s, Willebrandt was Assistant Attorney General during the Harding administration.

In less than two decades, the law school student enrollment climbs to the top five in America. The student boom reflects the explosive growth of Los Angeles itself, a city of nearly 1 million inhabitants.

You Chung Hong JD ’24, LLM ’25 graduates. Hong was the first Chinese American admitted to practice in California and went on to become the nation’s foremost Chinese civil rights attorney over the next four decades.

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The police court (center), birthplace of the law school, and the Tajo Building (far left), an early home.
Dean Frank M. Porter with prospective students.
The first law school graduates: Class of 1901.
At right, the Wilcox Building and L.A. Trust Building briefly served as school headquarters.
Mabel Walker Willebrandt with USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid in 1926.
Banner photograph by Hacob Khodaverdian / Other photographs courtesy of USC Law School / Hong portrait courtesy of the You Chung Hong and Mabel C. Hong Archives

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