Isaac Parker and the Founding of Harvard Law School
On April 17, 1816, in his Harvard Hall inaugural speech as the first Royall Professor of Law, Judge Isaac Parker made an early suggestion of the establishment of what would become Harvard Law School.
“At some future time, perhaps, a school for the instruction of resident graduates in jurisprudence may be usefully ingrafted in this professorship, and there is no doubt, that when that happens, one or two years devoted to study only, under a capable instructor, before they shall enter into the office of a counselor, to obtain a knowledge of practice, will tend greatly to improve the character of the bar of our state."1
When elected as the first Royall Professor, Judge Parker was serving as chief justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Parker keenly felt the inadequacy of the professorship to offer a robust legal education. His role on the bench, and the specifications of the professorship, necessitated a mere 17-18 lectures to Harvard College seniors and resident graduates.2
Just over a year later, on May 14, 1817, Parker presented a plan to the Corporation, which stated “The present mode of education is necessarily deficient … It is believed that a school at Cambridge, under the immediate care of a learned lawyer, whose attention would be principally directed to the instruction of his pupils, would afford opportunities for laying a solid foundation of professional knowledge, which would be cheerfully embraced, and would be found highly beneficial.”3
A month later, on June 12, 1817, the plan to create a professional school of law in connection with Harvard University was approved. Historians Daniel Coquillette and Bruce Kimball, in On the Battlefield of Merit, opine that “Informed by developments in legal education in England and America, this radical idea belonged, first and foremost, to Parker.” 4 Isaac Parker then became Harvard Law School's first and founding faculty member, serving the school for its first ten years.
With thanks to Bruce R. Kraus, A.B. ‘76, for sharing his correspondence highlighting the important role Isaac Parker played in the founding of Harvard Law School, and for his suggestion that Judge Parker be featured prominently on the occasion of our Bicentennial.
1 Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball, On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, the First Century (Harvard University Press, 2015) 93.
2 Harvard Law School Association, The Centennial History of Harvard Law School: 1817-1917 (Cambridge, MA, 1918) 3.
3 Coquillette and Kimball, op. cit., 94.
4 Coquillette and Kimball, op. cit., 95.