A leader in legal education since 1847.
Founded in 1847, Cumberland School of Law has been a leader in legal education for a momentous 175 years.
Judge Abraham Caruthers founded Cumberland with the singular purpose of preparing students for the practice of law. From the ashes of the original law school in Lebanon, Tennessee, that was burned during the Civil War, to the move to Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, Cumberland never faltered from that noble mission. Along the way, Cumberland developed a distinctive culture of collegial, supportive relationships and dedication to service.
“I call it an adventure, I speak of it as an experiment,” spoke Abraham Caruthers, the first professor at Cumberland School of Law, describing the precarious state of the institution’s beginnings.
Only seven students gathered in a law office on West Main Street in Lebanon, Tennessee, for the first day of classes on Oct. 1, 1847. At the time, there were no other university-affiliated law schools in Tennessee and only 14 other law schools in the United States. By the end of the second year, 56 students were enrolled at the thriving school, which was meeting at Cumberland University.
Cumberland School of Law developed a unique methodology, emphasizing moot court competitions, daily recitations and examinations, and a distinct spirit of competitiveness within the classroom. Moot court grew in prominence in the curriculum, reflecting the growing belief in the centrality of practical trial work to the Cumberland experience. Nathan Green Sr., a respected professor and local judge, charged the students in 1849 to perceive Cumberland School of Law as a “working school, intended and calculated to send from its halls, men who shall be working lawyers.”
The Civil War brought ruin to the Cumberland University campus.
Students returned to find the buildings burned by Confederate forces. The image of the school arising from the ashes like a phoenix, the mythological bird of Greece that arose from its own burnt destruction, became the symbol of the post war law school. In 1866, the trustees adopted a new seal, including the phrase “E Cineribus Resurgo,” or “I will rise from the ashes,” and the image of the phoenix.
In 1878, thanks to the significant gift by Judge Robert L. Caruthers, brother of Abraham Caruthers, Caruthers Hall was constructed to house the law school. Despite the new facilities in the latest architectural style, Cumberland School of Law fell behind the times. Faculty and administrators shortened the curriculum to a single year of study, citing financial obligatory exigencies on students, and a more efficient method of study than previous years. A second year was optional and was offered free of charge. During this time, the case method was introduced to legal education but was not adopted by Cumberland School of Law to replace the treatise method until the 1930s. The 1894 catalog made the first reference to legal topics, such as agency, partnership, bailments, sales, contracts and torts. However, the curriculum continued to be organized by books to be read rather than the course to adopt modern techniques and expand its curriculum by opting for the three-year standard, Cumberland School of Law became a maverick by 1919. Decades passed before the law school returned to the mainstream.
According to legend, the “perfect law student” attended classes at the Lebanon, Tennessee, campus from 1933 until 1940.
Rascal, a white-haired dog who belonged to a family that lived nearby, served as an informal mascot to the law school. Rascal trotted to classes each day and mounted the rostrum alongside the professor, where he listened as young law students attempted to respond to the professor’s questions. Rascal never passed on a question, he was always present at the required Friday law assemblies and was more regular in his classroom attendance than many of the graduating students.
In 1935, Cumberland School of Law rewarded his hard work by presenting him the rare degree of canine jurisprudence and making him an honorary member of the class of 1935. When Rascal died in 1940, students buried him beneath the window of the classroom where he had spent so much time. When the law school moved to Birmingham in 1961, Rascal's remains were exhumed and reinterred on the west side of Robinson Hall at Samford University. Each year, a procession of students and their dogs pass by Rascal's grave to commemorate one of the law school's most memorable graduates.
In the fall of 1946, Cumberland School of Law enrolled its first students in a new three-year program that adopted the standard case-method curriculum.
Arthur Weeks, the new dean of the law school, made it his priority to obtain ABA approval. This required many alterations to the existing state of the law school, including an expanded law library collection, additional faculty members and facility renovations. With these improvements, the law school received full ABA approval and AALS membership in 1952.
By 1951, Cumberland University had merged with Tennessee Women's College and moved to the Belmont campus, becoming Cumberland-Belmont University. The law school, however, stayed at the Lebanon campus and became a freestanding, independent institution. Weeks began contemplating moving the school to a more advantageous location and affiliating with an established college or university.
Enrollment was down, and the law school was operating at a deficit. Despite numerous fundraising campaigns, Cumberland School of Law failed to raise the funds necessary to solve its financial problems. In 1960, the ABA stood ready to suspend Cumberland School of Law’s accreditations, and the AALS its membership.
In 1961, Dean Arthur Weeks approached Howard College President Leslie S. Wright, Chancellor Harwell G. Davis, and chairman of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees Memory L. Robinson about acquiring Cumberland School of Law.
Robinson, a local attorney, became a leading proponent of the acquisition. Upon assurances that Cumberland School of Law would not conduct classes in Lebanon, Tennessee, after 1961 and that acquisition of the law school by Howard College seemed imminent, the ABA committee agreed to defer suspension of Cumberland School of Law’s accreditation.
For a sum of $125,000, Howard College obtained the law library with its 24,000 volumes, the name “Cumberland,” the good will of the institution, the records of the registrar’s office and alumni files, all available class composites, and the portrait of Cordell Hull. Hull, an alumnus from the class of 1891, is the longest-serving secretary of state and received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the United Nations. Cumberland School of Law is the first law school to have been sold outright from one university to another, passing from Cumberland University to Howard College
In 1965, shortly after dedication of the new law school building, Howard College claimed university status, changing its name to Samford University
Before 1967, no African American student had ever attended Samford University full time.
With her admission to Cumberland, Audrey Lattimore Gaston Howard blazed a trail in a city known for its disturbing history of racial injustice. In 1970, she became the first African American to graduate from Cumberland and shortly thereafter became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southeast. Having led the way for future Cumberland lawyers, her story is one of inspiration and perseverance.
Student life in Birmingham centered around achieving regional and national recognition for the school.
Cumberland School of Law was a mainstream, three-year, case-method law school, which emphasized student activities such as appellate advocacy and law review. Trophies captured by the Student Bar Association (SBA), legal fraternity chapters and competitive moot court teams were signs of the quality of the law school's program.
In 1974, Cumberland School of Law established the Cordell Hull Speakers Forum as a replacement for the university's mandatory chapel program. The forum has attracted such diverse speakers as then Senator Joe Biden, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the ethicist Joseph Fletcher. In 1974, the forum won the prize for the most outstanding SBA project in the nation. On multiple occasions, the American Bar Association named the Cumberland School of Law's SBA the most outstanding in the nation, as well as best Law Day Program, which featured banquet speakers such as Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Oklahoma Governor David Boren.
The 1970s saw an increased emphasis on moot court teams and trial practice teams that competed in mock trial competitions. The moot court team and trial advocacy teams competed at regional and national levels, experiencing unprecedented success at each. Cumberland School of Law quickly became known for its trial advocacy program, a distinction held to this day.
In 1990, the faculty’s library committee undertook a study that identified the long-term needs of the school, in light of anticipated growth of the library collection.
Thanks to a magnificent gift from Lucille Stewart Beeson, a longtime benefactor of Samford University, construction soon began on a new, freestanding library building east of Memory Leake Robinson Hall, connected by a glass-enclosed breezeway.
In February 1995, the library staff organized a caravan of carts stacked with books that proceeded from the old library located in the center of the main law building, now called the Great Room, to the new library. By March 1, the library completed its last move and opened its doors. At the same time, Lucille Beeson commissioned the Lady Justice statue, an embodiment of her words engraved at the entrance to the law library, “Seek wisdom to temper justice with compassion.” On Feb. 15, 1996, former President Gerald R. Ford dedicated the library that now serves as a serene place of study and learning for law students and the Birmingham legal community.
In 2014, Judge John L. Carroll stepped down from the deanship having served in that role since 2001.
After a national Search, Henry C. “Corky” Strickland III became dean on July 1, 2014. In June 2021 Strickland announced that he would be stepping down from the deanship effective the end of the 2021-22 academic year. On April 11, 2022, Blake Hudson was named dean of the law school and assumed his role on July 1, 2022.
Since 2012, credentials of each admitted class have remained strong.
The first-year class who began in fall 2021 presented a median LSAT of 154 and a median undergraduate GPA of 3.54. In that same entering class, 24% of the class consisted of previously underrepresented minorities and 59% were women.
While the law school’s advocacy programs continue to provide students with challenging opportunities to develop their lawyering skills through trying hypothetical cases or arguing hypothetical appeals, Cumberland’s new legal clinics, launched in 2020, offer students the opportunity to assist real clients in real world circumstances.
The first was the Cumberland Veterans Legal Assistance Clinic (C-VETS), which operates under the leadership of former dean and Marine Corps veteran John L. Carroll. Law students, under the supervision of a licensed attorney, have the opportunity to assist veterans—who are actual clients and real persons—on a variety of matters from wills and trusts to municipal court matters.
A second clinic, also begun in 2020, is the Cumberland Innocence Clinic, which works to exonerate persons of crimes they did not commit. The clinic accepts cases in which there is compelling evidence of innocence. Two other clinics, the Capital Defense Clinic and the Criminal Appeals Clinic, are carried on in association with the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office. The Capital Defense Clinic allows students to assist in representing defendants who face capital charges and through the Criminal Appeals Clinic students work with appellate attorneys to assist in all aspects of criminal appeals.
Cumberland has consistently competitive trial and moot court teams that have gone up against teams from other schools in regional and national competitions.
The results have been phenomenal. In 2015, the Cumberland Trial Team made the “Final Four” in the National Trial Competition, the nation’s oldest trial competition.
In addition to the frequent recognition of individual students in specific competitions by such accolades as “Best Oral Advocate” or “Top Gun” the law school has also received institutional recognition for the preeminence of its advocacy program. At the beginning of the decade, U.S. News & World Report named Cumberland among the top 10 in trial advocacy; in 2019 it was listed among the top 15 and in 2022, Cumberland ranked 8th in the nation for best trial advocacy program. The law school also ranks 4th in the nation in the Trial Competition Performance Rankings published by Fordham Law School.
In the last 10 years, Cumberland expanded its basic mission of training practicing lawyers to include offering online master’s degree programs in law related areas.
The first such program was the online Master of Science in Health Law and Policy that launched in August 2015. From that degree program, which primarily focused on health care, the program evolved over the decade to include a broader Master of Studies in Law, for those who don't hold a Juris Doctor, with four different concentrations. The original program, Health Law and Policy, remains one such concentration and is now known as Health Law and Compliance. The other three are: Financial Services Regulatory Compliance, Higher Education Law and Compliance and Legal Operations.
In 2021, the Princeton Review listed the Master of Studies in Law program as one of the best online programs in the nation for nonlawyers.
For Cumberland, as for all American law schools, accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA) and membership in American Association of Law Schools (AALS) is essential.
Accreditation is accomplished through periodic site visits from the accrediting bodies. In the case of Cumberland, the most recent visit took place in February 2020; thus reaccreditation should be finalized by the end of 2022.
Dean Arthur Weeks, and those who came before and after him, whether in Birmingham or Lebanon, Tennessee, provided the foundation on which the progress of Cumberland School of Law has been built.
The school continues to maintain a reputation as one of the finest advocacy programs in the nation. It has developed a world-renowned faculty, strong international programs, a state-of-the-art law library, and a group of students committed not only to excellence in the practice of law but to the betterment of the community as well.
The defining character of Cumberland School of Law is found in the heart of the students, faculty and alumni. All law schools provide a legal education, but Cumberland School of Law provides that education in a supportive environment. Faculty, staff and alumni are all committed to making sure that each student is valued and that each student succeeds. At Cumberland School of Law, there is a true sense of community and sharing that permeates all aspects of student life.
We are forever grateful for the contributions that so many have made to build and sustain this great law school. Cumberland School of Law is a special place where good people have become, and will continue to become, exceptional lawyers dedicated to professionalism and service.
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