IN THE PAST TWO DECADES, American law schools have strengthened their legal history curricula and faculty. Columbia Law School, which offered legal history long before its peers, is renewing its commitment to this endeavor.
The study of legal history evokes images of wizened scholars thumbing through dusty books and crumbling papers in dark library niches, a specialty of those who prefer the past to the present and future.
But the truth is, legal history is one of the fastest growing disciplines in law schools today. It is seen increasingly as a necessary ingredient for a first-rate legal education - a notion Columbia Law School acknowledged decades ago. Legal history was part of the Columbia curriculum even before the late 1920s, when Professor Julius Goebel Jr. '23 took over the teaching of Development of Legal Institutions (DLI). The course was reconceived by Prof. Goebel, who believed that a broad grounding in the history of law was essential to a well-rounded education - a rare idea at the time.
"Columbia was doing legal history and supporting legal history years before other leading law schools were doing it," according to Morton J. Horwitz, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. "When I began teaching 30 years ago, there were only a handful of legal historians on law school faculties. Today there are dozens. Legal history has become a subject the brightest students want to study."
At Columbia, Prof. Goebel was followed by Professor Joseph Smith '38 and then Professor Barbara Aronstein Black '55, who joined the faculty in 1984. (The George Welwood Murray Professorship of Legal History was passed down from Prof. Goebel and is currently held by Prof. Black.) In 1987, Professor Eben Moglen joined the faculty, followed two years later by Professor Robert Ferguson. In 2001, the Law School hired the young scholars Ariela Dubler and John Witt, whose research focuses (respectively) on family law and torts.
"They're outstanding new hires," says Prof. Horwitz. "They'll make legal history superb at Columbia."
As is typical of legal historians today, both Profs. Witt and Dubler come armed with two degrees: a J.D. and a Ph.D. in history.
"If you're looking for today's talented, promising scholars, they're likely to think of themselves as legal historians," says Prof. Black.