By the time of Dean Egan’s resignation in 1932, Duquesne University’s Law School had firmly established a reputation in local legal circles as a reliable source of well- trained professionals. 

The task of further developing the school’s programs would fall to a man who had been there since the beginning. John E. Laughlin joined the faculty when the school opened in 1911. He taught criminal law and evidence and served as vice dean for more than 20 years. 

Laughlin excelled in private practice and earned considerable renown as a trial attorney. He had served as assistant solicitor for the City of Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, upon accepting the deanship, he broke from the tradition of his predecessors, putting aside his lucrative outside work. He would, however, remain an active and influential figure in local and statewide legal circles.

One of Dean Laughlin’s first challenges was— not surprisingly—another move. During the Great Depression, the University took advantage of rock-bottom real estate prices by aggressively buying properties, both on the Bluff and downtown. In 1932, Duquesne purchased the Fitzsimons Building at 331 Fourth Avenue, a block from the Law School’s original home.

The $195,000 cost of the building was less than the assessed value of the land on which it stood, and a 1934 financial analysis reported that the carrying charges were much lower than the rent previously paid for less space. In turn, the university leased the lower floors to private interests, generating more than enough cash flow to cover the mortgage and operating expenses. Fittingly, the upper floors would be occupied by the schools of Business and Law for the next 26 years.

As during the school’s earlier years, the full-time faculty was small; a 1933 report listed only the dean and two professors. The rest of the faculty was comprised of part-time instructors, most of whom taught a single course in their area of expertise. Graduates received the Bachelor of Laws degree, even though 95 percent of students had already earned a bachelor’s in another discipline. 

With the school settled in new, larger quarters for the foreseeable future, a stable faculty and a strong curriculum in place, Dean Laughlin turned his attention to another important element of legal education—the Law Library. Though students had access to the nearby Allegheny County Law Library, Laughlin embraced building the school’s own collections as a personal crusade. During his tenure, holdings grew to exceed 10,000 volumes.

Laughlin portrait

Laughlin died suddenly in 1939. As the Depression eased, enrollment had grown slightly and had stabilized at 88 students by the end of his tenure, but darker days were on the horizon. Morris Zimmerman, an alumnus and faculty member who had served as Dean Laughlin’s assistant, was appointed acting dean while a search began for a permanent successor. 

Again, the search for a dean began and ended at home with the appointment of C. Gerald Brophy. A 1923 Duquesne Law graduate, Brophy had been teaching social science in the university’s College of Liberal arts since 1929. Brophy was reluctant to lead the Law School, and consented only on the condition that he would serve a single six-year term. Six turned to 16—he remained in the position until he died of a heart ailment in 1956.

As america plunged into World War II, enrollment at Duquesne and in law schools nationwide plummeted. Many schools were forced to suspend operations for the duration of the hostilities, but under Brophy’s steady leadership, Duquesne Law stayed open without interruption.

Brophy seized upon the reduced level of activity as an opportunity to modernize the school’s curriculum. Among other changes, he instituted an innovative cooperative work program with the Allegheny County Register of Wills Office. Students working in the department gained exposure to practical aspects of the legal profession. Brophy’s initiative expanded on a philosophy first expressed at Duquesne by Dean Swearingen and laid the groundwork for the extensive clinical legal education programs offered today. 

Brophy’s tenure was also highlighted by the launch of the school’s first alumni association. The names on the organizing committee roster read like a “Who’s Who” of distinguished graduates, including Judges Samuel A. Weiss, A’24, L’27; Henry X. O’Brien, B’25, L’28; and Hugh C. Boyle, L’28; and local attorneys Walter J. Blenko, L’24; Edward C. Boyle, L’28; Edward I. Goldberg, L’31; James P. McArdle, L’31; T. Robert Brennan, B’31, L’34; Bernard Hampsey, L’35; and Francis A. Devlin, L’51.

More than 350 alumni attended the association’s first annual dinner on June 4, 1952. 

As he was modernizing the curriculum, Brophy was also planting the seeds for new facilities. A hint of plans to replace the Fitzsimons Building with an on-campus home was dropped during the first Reunion Dinner in 1952, but Brophy would not live to see his vision realized, for it took more than five years for the university to acquire all 34 parcels of land needed for construction.

While postwar undergraduate enrollment surged, the Law School merely treaded water, though even that was considered success after a crippling depression and a global war. When Dean Brophy died, total enrollment stood at 91, just three students more than at the time of Dean Laughlin’s passing in 1939. Still, Brophy had set the stage for an era of remarkable growth. 

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