On 27 February 1854 the Mississippi legislature created a “professorship of governmental science and law” at the University of Mississippi. The act was passed at the urging of the Mississippi bar, whose members were concerned about confusion regarding just what laws and legal systems were in force in a state where US law, traditions of Native American law, the civil law systems of both France and Spain, and English common law were all a part of the past and present legal system. In addition, many Mississippi leaders had real concern that young Mississippians who went away to study in law in the northern states might pick up “troubling” ideas about the institution of slavery. At the time, only three US public universities—Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania—had law programs.
On 2 October 1857 the seven members of the first law class at the University of Mississippi assembled in a classroom with Prof. William Forbes Stearns. In spring of that year, the legislature had passed an act granting immediate admission to the state bar to any graduate of the university’s law program. For a while, the apprenticeship system, in which one read law in the law office of a member of the bar and then gained bar admission by taking an oral examination administered by a state judge, remained the usual way to gain entrance into the legal profession. However, by 1861 65 of the university’s 170 law students had won admission to the bar by earning a bachelor of laws degree.
When the university reopened after the Civil War, Prof. L. Q. C. Lamar taught the law department’s students, most of whom were Confederate veterans, from 1866 to 1870. In 1887 Lamar became the first former university law professor appointed to serve on the US Supreme Court. The department closed again from 1874 to 1877 because of a drastic drop in the university’s student enrollment caused by Reconstruction. In 1911 what was by then called the School of Law moved into its own campus building, Lamar Hall (now Ventress Hall). Within the next decade, the School of Law’s faculty included the dean of law and a law professor as well as a few assistant professors recruited on a part-time basis from among local attorneys, and a few women began to enroll as students. In 1921 the degree program was expanded from two to three years. In 1928 the first volume of the Mississippi Law Journal was published.
The law school received accreditation from the American Association of Law Schools in 1922 but lost it in December 1930, partly because Lamar Hall was too small to house the student body and faculty and to accommodate an adequate law library but primarily because Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo had pressured the university’s board of trustees to fire Dean Thomas Kimbrough and two other law professors who had opposed the governor politically. The school regained accreditation just two years later after the dean and the professors were rehired and the law school moved into a spacious new building on campus known today as Farley Hall. The number of students and faculty declined again during World War II but rebounded to record levels after veterans returned and enrolled.
During the 1960s the School of Law admitted the first African American students, and in 1967 future Mississippi Supreme Court justice Reuben V. Anderson became the school’s first African American graduate. The first African American faculty member, A C Wharton, joined the school on a part-time basis in 1974. And in 1970 Catherine V. Sullivan became the first woman to teach full-time on the faculty. In 1973 the school was renamed the University of Mississippi Law Center, and five years later it moved to a new location next to its former building. It moved to its current location in 2011, when it became the Robert C. Khayat Law Center. Today, the Law Center has some five hundred students and a forty-member faculty and houses the Mississippi Judicial College, the Mississippi Law Research Institute, the National Sea Grant Law Center, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Program, the Center for Continuing Legal Education, the Business Law Institute, and the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law.
- Michael de L. Landon, The University of Mississippi School of Law: A Sesquicentennial History (2006)
- David G. Sansing, The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History(1999)