50 Years at UVA: Professors Howard and Low Look Back at Evolution of Law School
The Barracks Road Shopping Center marked the northernmost edge of town on Route 29. Law students wore coats and ties and took classes in Clark Hall on the main University of Virginia Grounds. The subject of constitutional law was covered in a single course, and most of the cases that made criminal procedure its own field of study had not yet been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The two joined the faculty in the fall of 1964, after both graduated from the School of Law – Howard in 1961 and Low in 1963. Prior to beginning their teaching careers, they were among the first UVA Law graduates to clerk for the Supreme Court.
"I had not planned to go into teaching at all," Low said. "And I hadn't really looked hard for a job because I knew I could get one. Coming off the Supreme Court, the market was good."
But each received a phone call with a job offer that would set them on the path to becoming two of the school's most popular and beloved teachers.
"The stars were aligned – or misaligned, as the case may be!" Low said.
A Supreme Start
Howard spent two years at the Supreme Court clerking for Justice Hugo Black, while Low clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren for one year.
Between the time Howard was offered the clerkship and the date he reported for work, Justice Felix Frankfurter retired due to a stroke, and Arthur Goldberg took his place, shifting the balance of power toward the more liberal justices.
"It was the heyday of the Warren Court," Howard said. "Not only were the cases important, but the justices felt it. There was that air of history being made."
With Frankfurter off the court, Black's influence grew.
"After all these years of dissent, [Black] was now writing the great majority opinions, and there I was at his elbow," Howard said.
"It was a great term to be there [at the Supreme Court]," Low agreed. "There was an awful lot of heady stuff going on."
It was also the year President Kennedy was assassinated. Howard found out about it through a note from Black during conference, which Howard retained. In the note, Black had asked for a reference book, then interrupted his own request with, "The president has just been shot in Dallas."
Though neither Howard nor Low had initially intended to teach law, they knew they could go back to practicing if it didn't work out. They also didn't have a long wait to find out if they'd been hired.
"The informality of the hiring at that time compared to what goes on now is just striking," Low said.
Howard joked that “people might point to us” if pressed to explain why things changed.
Howard and Low were among five faculty recruited to teach in 1964; once they were hired, the faculty numbered 22 members.
"It was not only a smaller law school in those days but, I think, a more intimate place," Howard said.
Though each class year had about 200 students (compared to today's approximately 350), lecture classes were as large as 130-140 students. The first two years of the Law School's curriculum were required, leaving little room for electives in students' schedules.
From the start, Low taught criminal law and procedure, which would become his specialty, and the procedure portion was initially allotted just one hour of a four-credit course. (Mapp v. Ohio, a landmark criminal procedure case involving evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, had just been decided in 1961 and Miranda v. Arizona was not decided until 1966.)
Low also taught commercial law for two years before he was able to focus on criminal law and other related subjects more exclusively. Howard, meanwhile, taught constitutional law and jurisprudence from the start, but also was asked to teach evidence.
"I'd never been in a trial courtroom in my life," he said. "I limped through [the course] one case ahead of [my students].” But, he added, the students were kind about his lack of experience.
Though Howard and Low themselves had recently graduated, the transition to the faculty was smooth, both said.
"It was then, as it is now, a place that welcomes new faculty," Howard said.
Because Low had gone immediately into clerking, he knew some of the third-year students. At the time, he recalled, "many of the students were older because we still had the draft."
A Changing Curriculum
Though initially Low and Howard had little choice in what they taught, in time they developed their own portfolios and created new courses.
In the late 1960s, Howard worked with UVA chemistry professor Dennis Barnes to launch and co-teach the Law School's first course on environmental law.
"Before the first Earth Day, before we had NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act — none of those existed," Howard said. "To my horror, 80 people signed up, and I had to get really serious about it."
"That's a nice thing about this law school," Low said. "We are pretty informal about [launching new courses]."
Low said that his first seminar in 1973, which he co-taught with Dean Monrad Paulsen, was designed to discuss Supreme Court cases the week they were decided.
"At that time the Supreme Court would decide real cases, if you will, all throughout the term," Low said.
And the first case the court decided in the first week of the class was Roe v. Wade.
By the 1970s, electives flourished and the Law School had cut back on required courses (today only eight courses are required — five in the first semester and three in the second).
The curriculum evolved in other ways as well. Today's roster of short courses and January term courses and the huge array of seminars didn't exist, and first-year lecture courses are almost halved in size to about 60 students. Constitutional law is now covered in a range of courses, as is criminal procedure.
"[Criminal procedure as a topic] exploded, and the same is true with the First Amendment," Low said.
"Think of the number of legal issues which, when we began teaching, were distant from the Constitution [and] which have now been constitutionalized — the law of libel for example, was not constitutionalized until 1965 with New York Times v. Sullivan. Up to that point, it was pretty much state law," Howard said. The same was true, Low added, with the law governing police investigative practices.
The school also created small sections of first-year students to help manage its growing student body. Each incoming student was assigned to a group of about 30 others, all of whom took one first-semester course together.
"As the Law School grew in size, I think that played a very important role in preserving a sense of smallness from the student perspective," Low said.
The Impact of the 1960s
Howard and Low began their teaching careers during a time of cultural change as well. UVA Law students in the 1960s wanted more input into how the school was run, such as by sitting on faculty committees. Eventually, students became voting members of all the school's committees except two, Appointments and Admissions, where they would be advisory members.
"The Law School was not rocked like Berkeley or Columbia … but there was a sense that students should have more choice, fewer requirements, that somehow required courses were onerous," Howard said.
At the time faculty ran all administrative functions, from student affairs to career services. In his second year, Low covered duties now fulfilled by Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Martha Ballenger.
"That was possible because student expectations and demands at that time were quite different than they are today," Low said. "We didn't provide the services then that [Ballenger can] provide today. I was there for a crisis, and that's about all I did."
Other changes took hold. The coat and ties Low and Howard wore almost as a uniform vanished by the 1970s. Low, who graduated from a class of about 200, said only two women and one African-American were in his class.
"The culture and choices were different," Low said of the fewer number of women. "I don't want to say there weren't any barriers [to entering law school at UVA], but they were subtle barriers and not formal barriers."
UVA did not admit women to all of its undergraduate schools until 1970. When Low started law school a decade earlier, his wife, Carol, was finishing her undergraduate degree. She transferred to UVA and had to pursue a degree in education instead of her preferred major of psychology because only the Nursing and Education schools accepted women then.
As times changed, so did the range of options for extracurricular activities. At one time the Student Legal Forum and the Virginia Law Review were "about the only game in town," Howard said, in contrast to today's nearly 70 student organizations and 10 journals.
Clark Hall, where the Law School was housed until 1974, was a "rabbit warren, kind of quaint and colorful," Low said. The location also bred interdisciplinary thinking and socializing among other UVA faculty because of its closeness to the Arts and Sciences facilities.
When the Law School moved to North Grounds, Howard said the transition into a more modern building was somewhat jarring.
Ultimately, though, the move enriched the school and allowed it to grow into a larger structure, as it also took over the former campus for the Darden School of Business, Howard said. The two buildings were joined together first by Clay Hall in 1997 and then the Student-Faculty Center, which was completed in 2002.
Charlottesville also expanded, as growth along Route 29 migrated rapidly north.
"If you were a law student here, [the town's relative size] reinforced the sense that this was your life," Howard said.
The scope of and interest in legal scholarship has expanded among both faculty and students as well. Howard said his method of teaching constitutional law from a historical perspective was unusual in the past. Now many faculty members have Ph.D.s in history and other fields, following the growth of interdisciplinary studies.
Howard said students today are more interested in writing original work, leading to the popularity of independent and directed research projects.
"It's common now to have students, whether they are on a journal or not, who want to write something substantial and hope to publish it," Howard said.
Students and alumni also are more aware of the Law School's funding structure and the need to financially support the school, both noted. Low credited Dean Hardy Dillard's foresight in professionalizing the Law School Foundation and increasing its fundraising activities. (Dillard was dean from 1963 to 1968.)
"Hardy was, more than any other one individual, I think, responsible for understanding the seriousness and importance of alumni giving and putting the Law School Foundation on a sound track that has led to what you see today," Low said.
"We have been blessed with an extraordinary collection of deans the entire time we have been here," Low added. "It's been a really positive leadership cycle."
Making Time for Public Service
While teaching has been central to their last five decades, Howard and Low have served in capacities outside of the Law School as well — including Low's almost eight years as UVA vice president and provost. His responsibilities in that role extended to all academic operations of the university.
"Although I had been at UVA for more than 25 years before I took the job," he said, "the most fascinating part of it was learning firsthand about the parts of the university I had not previously known."
Howard was executive director of the commission that wrote Virginia's current constitution and directed the successful referendum campaign for its ratification. Howard described himself as the "junior on the block" on a commission team that included Dillard; Lewis Powell, who later sat on the Supreme Court; and noted civil rights attorney Oliver Hill, among others. Howard said that his work with the commission was his first serious immersion in state constitutional law.
Eventually that experience grew into advisory roles on constitution-writing worldwide, especially in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
"That's one example of how things that I have done outside the Law School drive and influence both my teaching and my writing," Howard said. "It enlarges the world in which I live."
Similarly, from 1970 to 2000, Low was involved in the FBI's National Academy Program, starting with planning UVA's role in the venture, which is still run through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. During that period, he taught constitutional and criminal law concepts to state and local police, FBI lawyers and FBI instructors.
"Trying to explain constitutional law to beat cops, street cops … and being introduced to them as a law clerk for Earl Warren was an interesting and challenging experience," Low said. "It actually helped my teaching here quite a bit to have to deal with a lay audience."
The Future of Legal Education
Howard and Low said the next challenge to the legal academy may be fully realizing how technology will affect teaching, even as they acknowledged how much it has already changed legal study and practice. Low recalled using carbon copies in his days on the Supreme Court and mimeographs in his early days of teaching — compared to today, when making copies is simple and so much information is online.
"The technology revolution that has occurred since then has already had a profound effect on legal education, and I think it's going to have an even more profound effect down the road," Low said. "How to use technology in the classroom, for example, is just beginning to rear its ugly head, if you will — I don't know whether it's ugly or whether it's handsome, but it's going to change."
"The 50 years we've talked about have been stunning, but I have a feeling the next 50 will be even more remarkable," Howard added, particularly in the area of online education.
Both said they are optimistic about the future of UVA Law.
"I'm happy I cast my lot with this law school," Howard said. "I think it's full of promise, I think it's a good place to be. I feel good about the future of this law school."
"The curve is up," Low agreed. "I'm optimistic about the future of legal education and the future of legal education here."
Though many things have changed over the years, the professors pointed to one aspect of life at UVA that has remained all-too familiar.
"In my student days and in my early faculty days, the football team was in an enormous losing streak," Low said with a laugh.
Howard added, "Some things don't change.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.