While the University of Memphis is celebrating its centennial, its Cecil C. Humphreys
School of Law is celebrating as well: the law school is marking its 50th anniversary.
|The U.S. Post Office/Customs House was a bustling center of business in the early
part of the 20th century; it is now home to the Humphreys School of Law.
“There was nothing here and we came up from that,” founding Dean R.D. Cox said in
describing how the school has evolved into one of the South’s top law schools.
Established in 1962, the idea for the school may have come as early as 1941 in the
form of an unlikely debate. Cecil C. Humphreys, a football coach at then-Memphis State
College, took on an articulate young lawyer named Lucius Burch at a public forum on
the question, “Are civil rights inviolate in times of emergency?” Humphreys cited
historical precedents where civil rights had been suspended during national emergencies.
Neither debater could have known that four months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
would issue a presidential order that led to the relocation of Japanese-Americans
on the West Coast to internment camps. The question remains a significant American
legal issue even today.
Humphreys was taking night courses at Southern Law University, but the attack on Pearl
Harbor ended his studies. When he became president of Memphis State University in
1960, the visionary knew that a fully accredited law school would be a major community
There were two unaccredited law schools already offering night courses in Memphis,
but the schools agreed to close their doors and send their students to then-MSU if
it created a law school that offered both day and evening classes. After hard-fought
negotiations, and opposition from the University of Tennessee and its supporters in
Nashville, the State Board of Education voted to authorize the establishment of a
law school at Memphis.
In September 1962, the new Memphis State University Law School opened its doors to
more than 140 students who attended classes in Johnson Hall. The school received accreditation
by the American Bar Association in 1965, and the following year moved into a new building
on Central Avenue.
The building would remain its home for more than four decades, but in January 2010,
the law school moved into the former U.S. Post Office/Customs House in downtown Memphis.
The stately building offers an unrivaled learning environment. Much of its “classical
revival” architectural character remains, including original brass window cages and
Situated in the center of the city’s legal, governmental and business communities,
the world-class facility provides students a prime location for interacting with judges,
attorneys and business leaders.
Graduates who take the Tennessee Bar Exam for the first time consistently have passage
rates of more than 90 percent, well above the state average. Some classes have scored
a perfect pass rate. National publications have ranked the program a “best value”
law school and in the top 10 for “Best Quality of Life.”
The law school has more than 5,000 alumni working in all facets of the legal profession,
including more than 50 judges in the state of Tennessee.
What does the future hold?
Dean Kevin Smith said the school will continue to provide a rigorous yet affordable
legal education that has allowed students to move into law firms and serve on the
bench throughout the nation.
“We will also continue to build meaningful partnerships with the business community
and we’ll be expanding our externship and clinical offerings,” he said.
— by Gabrielle Maxey