Jerry Summers: Chattanooga's Law School

Thursday, May 13, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

With the proliferation of new law schools in Knoxville and Nashville, Chattanooga is the only large Tennessee community that does not have a law school.

Such was not the case from 1898 through 1960.

The school was begun as the Law Department of Grant University, predecessor to the University of Chattanooga, and was housed in a building that capped the Hill overlooking the University between Oak Street and McCallie Avenue.  It was later torn down to be replaced by the brick buildings of the University.

Robert Pritchard, author of the treatise on Wills and Administration of Estates which was the legal authority on said subjects, was the first Dean of the school.

After serving as Dean for 12 years he was replaced by Judge Lewis Shepherd, considered by many to be one of the most skillful and talented lawyers in the history of the legal community.

The individual most closely identified with the development of the law school was Charles T. Evans who served as Dean from 1901-1910 and increased the enrollment until it was the third largest law school in the South, ranking only behind Virginia and Texas Law Schools.

In 1910 the university’s law school was dissolved and Mr. Evans organized the Chattanooga College of Law until his death in 1920.

The faculty consisted of practicing attorneys and elected judges.

Judge W.B. Swaney became Dean upon the death of Mr. Evans and served in that capacity until 1946.

As a result of World War draining the school of its students, the school closed.

In 1947 Roy McKenzie, Sr., president of McKenzie Business School, announced his intention to start a law school, either as a reactivation of the Chattanooga College of Law, or as a division of his business school.

Although opposed by the Chattanooga Bar Association the school opened with over 100 students and some 20 part time instructors, who were practicing attorneys or judges.

The basis for the opposition by the bar association was an accusation that 14 of the 16 attorneys involved in the Chattanooga Divorce Mill investigation involving spouses of soldiers who were getting uncontested divorces without proper protection of the servicemen rights under the federal Soldier and Sailors Relief Act when they were shipped out for military service in Europe or the Pacific had been graduates of the Chattanooga College of Law.

Roy McKenzie addressed the Chattanooga Bar Association and requested the association support his new school. The group of lawyers voted to cooperate with the school, although not approving it.

Gus Wood, Jr. became the new dean and the practice of using part time professors from the legal and judicial communities continued.

Approximately half of the attorneys in Chattanooga during the first 40 years of the 20th Century were graduates of the law school and at one time all of the judges in the Chancery, Circuit and Criminal Courts were graduates.

With tightening standards on eligibility to take the bar examination and reduction in federal benefits for World War II Veterans the student body registration declined.

However Korean War Veterans became eligible for educational benefits and this allowed the school to remain open until 1960.  In that year, the graduating class only had 10 members.

Notable graduates for the Chattanooga College of Law included Alexander Guery (’14), future headmaster of Baylor School and vice-chancellor of the University of Chattanooga and the University of the South.  A talented trial lawyer, E.B. Baker (’28) and John Stophel (’55), member of one of Chattanooga’s leading law firms, Chambliss Bahner and Stophel, at the time of his death on October 4, 2007 were both excellent lawyers and/or community leaders.

One of the surviving graduates of the Chattanooga College of Law in is Paul Leitner, Jr. (’54), who is the senior partner at Leitner, Williams, Dooley and Napolitan one of the leading civil defense firms in the area.

The future will determine whether Chattanooga creates a need for another law school to compete with the other metropolitan areas.

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)


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