History of UCLA School of Law

From its beginning, UCLA School of Law has offered an innovative and exceptional legal education. UCLA Law fosters a learning environment that is collaborative and challenging. It cultivates a faculty of cutting-edge scholars and dedicated teachers who embrace its core values. The student body broadly represents the rich diversity of Los Angeles and the nation. And alumni are brilliant leaders in law firms, business, public interest work, academia, government and the judiciary.

The school grew out of state lawmakers’ sustained effort in the 1940s to create Southern California’s first public law school — more affordable and accessible than private institutions.

On July 18, 1947, California Gov. Earl Warren signed a measure authorizing $1 million to build a law school on the UCLA campus, and UCLA Law opened in 1949 in temporary barracks behind Royce Hall. The law school building was completed in 1951, and founding Dean L. Dale Coffman (whose deanship spanned 1949-58) presented the 44 members of the inaugural graduating class with their degrees in 1952.

That first class included five women — among them the top student and law journal editor — as well as military veterans and others who gravitated toward a young and nimble institution.

Under Dean Richard Maxwell (1958-69), the faculty size tripled, from 12 to 37 professors, and the school hired its first female and African-American faculty members. Under Deans Murray Schwartz (1969-75) and William Warren (1975-82), the school became a pioneer in clinical legal education, developing a skills-based approach that remains among the school’s hallmarks and continues to have broad resonance in legal education today.

“As a young law school,” Warren later recalled, “it was just easier for us to strike out on our own because we had no traditions to break.”

In these years, UCLA Law also established areas of focus that would blossom into full-fledged centers of scholarship and study. With copyright legend Melville Nimmer on faculty, the school held its first entertainment law courses. Other professors developed curricula in environmental law, Indian law and communications law, and the school launched its International and Comparative Law Program. Students, too, broke new ground. In 1973, they created a network of student-run legal clinics first known as El Centro Legal de Santa Monica.

Today, El Centro is a powerful student-run organization with 15 projects serving underrepresented communities in Los Angeles. The Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment is among the top-ranked environmental programs in the country. Alumni of the Ziffren Institute for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law routinely are ranked among the entertainment industry’s power lawyers. And the strength of the school’s international law program has expanded with the 2017 creation of the Promise Institute for Human Rights.

In 1982, alumna Susan Westerberg Prager ’71 (1982-98) assumed the deanship, making her one of the first female law school deans in the country and the first of three women — including Rachel Moran (2010-15) and Jennifer Mnookin (2015-present) — to serve as dean of the law school. Under Prager’s leadership, the school expanded its physical and intellectual footprint, adding numerous leading faculty members and investing deeply in its law library. In 2000, the school completed the Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library, the jewel of UCLA Law, which is a vital resource for students, faculty and practitioners from across California.

Entering the 21st century under deans Jonathan Varat (1998-03) and Michael Schill (2004-09), UCLA Law established new centers of excellence that are driven by faculty members who are among the leading figures in their fields. The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy is the leading organization for research and analysis of LGBT legal issues. The David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy trains students who are committed to advancing social justice and serving communities of need in Los Angeles and around the world. The Critical Race Studies program is the first law school program to formalize the study of the intersection of race and the law.

In recent years, UCLA Law has continued to work with alumni and friends of the school to create programs that address sophisticated and emerging areas of the law. Under Dean Moran, the school founded the Lowell Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy and the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy. UCLA Law Women LEAD, a networking organization of UCLA Law alumnae and students founded in 2015, has grown to more than 2,000 members. The school has also expanded its robust LL.M. program, drawing 200 students each year from dozens of countries.

Under Dean Mnookin, the school has deepened its commitment to serving the public, profession and society. The Achievement Fellowship program, established in 2017, offers full-tuition scholarships to qualified students who have overcome exceptional challenges in order to attend law school. The school has also launched the First Gen In initiative to support students who are the first in their families to earn college degrees.

The Promise Institute was founded that same year with a $20 million gift, the largest single gift in the history of the law school. In 2017, the school also created the A. Barry Cappello Program in Trial Advocacy, offering students a robust combination of classwork and national trial competition experience.

In 2020, UCLA Law established two new centers in areas of growing importance: the Center for Immigration Law and Policy and the Institute on Technology, Law and Policy, which is the first formal collaboration between UCLA Law and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. In August 2020 the school will begin a Master of Legal Studies degree, a program designed to serve non-lawyers who are looking to cultivate legal knowledge and skills.

Today, UCLA Law has more than 60 full-time faculty members, many of whom are recognized by other professors of law and jurists across the nation as the most influential scholars in their disciplines. The school’s 18,000 alumni include nearly 200 state and federal judges, several members of Congress, top attorneys in government and private practice, leaders in Hollywood, attorneys who are improving the lives of people in under-represented communities, and scholars who teach in law schools around the United States.

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