School of Law Founding

Law school in 1911After the protracted court battle, it was ironic that Duquesne’s first professional school would train lawyers. But the Rev. Martin Hehir, C.S.Sp., the new university’s president, had actually been contemplating such a move for some time.

The reasons for starting with a law school were both pragmatic and philosophical. While having passed the assets test, Duquesne’s finances were tenuously balanced. In no small part, this was due to the Spiritans’ insistence that no worthy student should be turned away due to the inability to pay. With cash flow always a concern, Fr. Hehir recognized that a law school was less expensive and complicated to establish and maintain than a school of medicine or pharmacy.

A law school also better meshed with the character of what was still essentially a liberal arts college, and provided the most direct path toward upward mobility for Catholics. As university historian Weiss explained, “It was viewed as producing the type of public men who could best assume leadership roles in both the Catholic and larger secular society to the credit of Catholicism.”

The announcement that Duquesne would establish a law school came in June of 1911, less than three months before it would open. That left little time to work through a myriad of decisions.

The first critical choice was to appoint a dean. This key position was given to the Honorable Joseph M. Swearingen, president judge of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. 

The reference to “those engaged in business” was notable. Classes in Duquesne’s law school initially began in the late afternoon, making legal education available to many who held jobs. Over the first few years, it became apparent that this was still not late enough. In 1914, the Duquesne Monthly reported that classes would be held from 6-8 p.m. Monday through Friday:

“We have reason to believe that there is a large number of young men in Pittsburgh and its vicinity who have passed their preliminary examinations or who have college degrees entitling them to enter upon the study of Law, and who, because they have become engaged temporarily in other professions, find it practically impossible to attend classes that are held in the late afternoon, and would regard evening classes as a distinct and welcome convenience.

“We feel confident that this arrangement will appeal strongly, not only to a large number of prospective practitioners, but also to many business men who appreciate at its just value a knowledge of Law as a safe guide in business transactions.”

The commitment to access for all was reflected in admissions policy. Any student who had graduated from an accredited four-year college or university was eligible to enroll. Students aged 18 or older without degrees could be admitted by passing a general education exam. Even the references to “men” would not be interpreted literally for long.

Swearingen recruited a part-time faculty of 17, including John E. Laughlin, a prominent younger member of the local Bar; Harry F. Stambaugh, who represented the college during its struggle for university status; and William H. Lacey, who would set a record for faculty longevity.

On September 24, 1911, Pope Pius X issued a papal blessing upon the new school’s opening:

“On the occasion of the public inauguration of classes in the aforementioned college, which has lately been raised to the dignity of a university, the Holy Father cordially bestows upon you, the professors, all the students and benefactors, the Apostolic Benediction as a pledge of heavenly gifts.”

The next day, a dozen young men took their seats for Professor Lacey’s first lecture.

The school was not housed with the rest of the university in Old Main—there was not enough space. Instead, rooms were rented in the George Building at 436 fourth avenue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s financial district. In typical Duquesne fashion, this apparent inconvenience was marketed as an advantage: a flat, two-block walk to the courthouse rather than a longer, steeper trek from the Bluff. This appealed to students working downtown and had educational impact.Early Law Graduates

A product of the “master-apprentice” system, Swearingen fervently believed that classroom learning was enhanced by exposure to the practical aspects of a legal career. at his urging, students would frequently troop over to the nearby courthouse to observe daily proceedings.

In 1912, Swearingen established a debating society, which soon evolved into a full-fledged moot court program. The mock trials not only honed law students’ skills; by the 1930s they also became a popular source of entertainment and enlightenment for undergraduates on the Bluff.

Swearingen and his faculty implemented innovative teaching methods. At the time, a debate raged over whether the traditional reading of texts or a new approach—examination of cases—was more effective. The 1912 Law Bulletin announced that Duquesne would integrate the two:

After careful consideration of both the text book and case systems, it has been decided to follow a combination of both, believing that there is considerable merit in each. Text books of recognized authority are used...In addition to this, the student is expected to study thoroughly the cases cited by the lecturer and to be prepared under his guidance to explain the reasons for the judgment arrived at. By these two methods it is hoped to impress upon the student not only the principles of the law, but also the reason employed in arriving at the principles.

This approach proved remarkably successful. Every one of the 12 students at Professor Lacey’s first lecture graduated in June of 1914. all but one passed the Bar examination three months later. The lone exception—Oscar Gregory Meyer—had already passed the Bar and opened his own practice before graduating, in December of 1913.

The year 1914 was eventful for the young school. While graduating its first class, enrollment was steadily growing—to a level the George Building could no longer accommodate. This prompted the first in what would become a series of moves, this one to the nearby Vandergrift Building.

In 1921, more growth forced a move to the Maloney Building on the Boulevard of the Allies. Three years later the school relocated again—for the first time to the campus on the Bluff, beginning an eight-year residence in a portion of the new Canevin Hall.

One new student in 1914, Mrs. M. Murphy, was the first woman to matriculate in the Law School. She did not ultimately complete her degree, but her presence demonstrated that the school was serious about providing access to all. In 1921, Anna Louise Schultz enrolled; three years later she was the first female graduate. Right behind her was the school’s first African American alumnus, Theron B. Hamilton, who matriculated in 1922 and graduated in 1925.

In the earliest days, Duquesne’s law school tuition was only $100 per year—still a hefty sum for many working people. As was his habit, Fr. Hehir often made informal accommodations for those who could not afford to pay. Perhaps the most famous example involved Samuel Weiss, a Jewish student and 1927 Law graduate. In a chance meeting, Weiss told the president that he had run out of money and had to withdraw. Fr. Hehir instructed Weiss to return to class, and the subject was never mentioned again. Weiss later became a distinguished judge, a donor to scholarship funds, and a university board member. Late in the 1920s, a more structured tuition adjustment system was adopted to help qualified, needy applicants pursue a legal education.

Still, self-sacrifice was the norm for many students. Joseph W. Givens, an African American, graduated in 1929 at age 31, after working at various times during his student years as a storekeeper, railroad operator, janitor and city employee to put himself through school.

After serving as a full-time dean and judge for 18 years, Dean Swearingen relinquished his academic duties in 1929. In failing health, he would retire from the bench two years later.

The Honorable Joseph M. Swearingen died in 1937 at the age of 82. His vision of “a thoroughly efficient Law School of the highest character and the broadest range” had by then taken shape.

Class of 1929

Class of 1929

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