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Legal History Nugget: Needham Law School

A historical marker on Route 45 near Farmville commemorates Needham Law School. Photo courtesy of www.markerhistory.com

A historical marker on Route 45 near Farmville commemorates Needham Law School (Photo courtesy of www.markerhistory.com)

Virginia is known as the home of the oldest operating law school in the U.S. and the nation’s second oldest college: William & Mary.

But could you name the second law school established in Virginia, which also was the fourth law school in the U.S.?

Probably not, because this institution is likely one you’ve never even heard of.

Needham Law School – which opened its doors in 1821 – may have been forgotten in time altogether, were it not for an official Virginia historical marker that sits along the side of Route 45, just north of Farmville.

According to the marker, Needham was the location of Virginia’s first proprietary law school and home of its founder, Judge Creed Taylor.

What exactly is a proprietary law school? In the early 19th century, most would-be lawyers read the law under an experienced practitioner prior to joining the bar. Proprietary law schools were a step above the apprenticeship system. These for-profit schools were independent of existing universities and colleges, and typically were led by a prominent attorney who opened his law office to a group of students.

At Needham, Taylor trained more than 300 men for the law. President John Tyler was among its notable alumni, the marker claims. Needham apparently was one of the first law schools to use moot court as a primary system of instruction.

The marker says that the school closed its doors before 1840. Other sources claim the school was shuttered by 1830, after a mere 9-year run. Taylor died in 1936.

Further information on the erstwhile law school remains elusive.

A search of library databases points to the existence of a 24-page book about the school, which was reprinted from a 1935 article in the Farmville Herald. This publication is also referenced in “Virginia Law Books: Essays and Bibliographies, Volume 239,” which was printed in 2000 and edited by University of Richmond Professor Hamilton Bryson.

Bryson’s compilation, which is available through Google Books, sheds a bit more light on Taylor’s establishment of a moot court system:

“Taylor’s method of instruction was unique in Virginia and appears to have been his invention. He did not lecture. Instead, Taylor assigned books to read, and when the student passed an examination on these books, he then moved into a moot court program. The moot courts were conducted at both the trial and appellate levels; Taylor, of course, presided.”

Taylor’s program took about 18 months to complete, according to “Virginia Law Books,” but his courses were designed only to be an introduction to the law. Those who completed his law school and joined the bar were expected to continue their legal education by studying federal, international, criminal and admiralty law, along with the Bible.

The moot court program was successful in its first year, Taylor claimed in an 1822 report. How it fared beyond that point is unknown, as there appears to be nothing more written about the school by its founder.

Despite Needham’s fleeting existence, moot court is still a familiar practice in law schools today, a lasting legacy of an institution long gone, but not quite forgotten.

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