Through much of the 20th Century, a debate raged over which institution – the College of William & Mary or the Litchfield Law School – established the first law school in the United States. America’s first law professor was George Wythe, appointed by the College in 1779 at the suggestion of Virginia Governor and William & Mary Board of Visitors member Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, lawyer Tapping Reeve founded a law school in Litchfield, Connecticut that was unaffiliated with any college or university.
Although law courses began at William & Mary five years earlier, Litchfield supporters claimed that the Connecticut school offered the first program specifically designed to instruct future lawyers. Wythe’s courses, they contended, were merely part of William & Mary’s general education program. However, the Litchfield arguments ignored the intention of both Jefferson and Wythe to train future lawmakers and “citizen lawyers” at the College.
After decades of disagreement, William & Mary is now acknowledged as the first university-affiliated law school, and Litchfield as the first proprietary (independent) law school.