University of Memphis Magazine
University of Memphis Photo
Summer 11 Features


100 years and going strong
Sporting an attitude
These times they are a-changin'

Legend of the fall

The Columns: Alumni Review
Club and Chapter News
"Tigers Around Town" make
splashy debut

In Memoriam

The Columns: Alumni Review
A gallery of presidents, from past to present
Centennial reflections
Looking back: Centennial timeline
Law in order as it celebrates 50 years

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.
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.
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.

“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 asset.

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 hardwood paneling.

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

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Last Updated: 1/23/12