Nashville School of Law

NSL History


Historical Background

During our nation’s first century, persons desiring to practice law most often served as apprentices to more experienced lawyers. They would “read law” while learning the practical competencies needed to practice law successfully. When they completed their training, aspiring lawyers would become full-fledged members of their local legal community after passing an informal oral examination.

Lawyers began to organize on the state and national level following the Civil War. Their goal was to establish the practice of law as a “learned profession.” To achieve this goal, they advocated replacing apprenticeships with a law school education, raising the standards for entry into the profession, and standardizing the process for admission to the practice of law.

These reforms dramatically changed legal education in the United States. During the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, the number of law schools increased; the case method replaced skills training; law degrees replaced apprenticeships; and states began administering written bar examinations. As the study of law came to be viewed as an academic exercise, training in the practical competencies needed to practice law successfully was pushed aside.

The number of law schools affiliated with a college or university increased gradually. These schools generally offered a three-year curriculum and an approach to legal education patterned after Harvard Law School. They employed full-time law professors, assembled large law libraries, and awarded law degrees. Eventually, they adopted pre-admission education requirements and entrance examinations to screen applicants.

During the same period, the growth in the number of unaffiliated evening law schools greatly exceeded the growth in the number of full-time law schools. Their curriculums were more heavily weighted toward training students in practical competencies. Their faculties were experienced lawyers and judges with close ties to their local legal communities whose focus was on teaching and mentoring. While the setting for the instruction moved from law offices to classrooms, the essential elements of the apprenticeship model remained. Students in the evening programs were mentored into the profession by the same professionals with whom they would eventually practice law.

The evening law schools proved to be extremely popular. They democratized legal education by providing an opportunity to obtain a legal education to working class adults for whom the pathway through the collegiate system was out of reach. The students saw these schools as an affordable gateway to a professional legal career with the attendant opportunities for social advancement and financial security. As a result, the number of students enrolled in evening law schools after the turn of the twentieth century far exceeded the number of students attending full-time law schools.

Many of the evening law schools were proprietary. However, during this time, several nonprofit organizations entered the field of legal education. One of these organizations, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), was already providing other educational opportunities to its members.

The Early Years

Nineteen law schools affiliated in some manner with the YMCA were created between 1891 and 1927. Many of the founders of these schools were practicing graduates of prestigious law schools who recognized the need for a part-time legal education for students who could not afford full-time legal study. The students attending these schools consisted of government employees, teachers, middle managers, and other working men and women. They displayed the tenacity and desire for self-improvement that characterizes today’s part-time students who are willing to take on the challenge of studying law along with their commitments to their families and employers.

In 1911, four graduates of Vanderbilt Law School founded the YMCA Night Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. Their intent was to provide working men and women with a quality legal education at an affordable price. They believed that creating an opportunity to study law part time would benefit not only the students but also Nashville and its residents. In a unique collaboration, the School’s students completed part of their course work at nearby Cumberland Law School and were awarded Cumberland law degrees. However, in 1927, the Nashville YMCA Night Law School started awarding degrees in its own name.

By the mid-1930s, legal education in Tennessee mirrored legal education in other states. In 1937, the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) commissioned an independent study of Tennessee’s twelve law schools. Three of these schools, all affiliated with universities, offered a full-time curriculum. The remaining schools were independent and offered evening programs. Of the twelve, only two of the day programs had received accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA). In 1938, 915 students were studying law in Tennessee. Almost 60% of these students were enrolled in one of the nine evening programs. Over 20% of the students attending evening programs were enrolled at the Nashville YMCA Night Law School.

The Modern Law Center

As the twentieth century progressed, national organizations such as the ABA, the American Association of Law Schools, and the Law School Admissions Council set out to elevate, standardize, and regulate the practice of law. Their efforts undermined the viability of many unaffiliated evening law schools. The schools affiliated with the YMCA were no exception because the YMCA could no longer afford to fund and operate accredited legal education programs. Accordingly, to remain viable, the law schools affiliated with the YMCA were forced to seek relationships with other colleges and universities and, in the process, were required to shift from evening programs to full-time day programs.

As all the other YMCA affiliated law schools were either assimilated or closed, the Nashville YMCA Night Law School became the only remaining independent law school with YMCA roots. The School eventually severed its ties with the YMCA. It was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation in 1927 and changed its name to the Nashville School of Law (NSL) in 1986. Finally, in 1991, it moved out of its classrooms in the basement of the downtown YMCA and into its own facility on the outskirts of Nashville. When the University of Memphis graduated its evening program’s last class in 1988, the School became the only law school in Tennessee offering exclusively evening classes.