For 100 years, Birmingham School of Law has provided a quality education at an affordable price for law students. The affordable tuition rate, coupled with night and Saturday classes, have made law school possible for students who otherwise could not have pursued a career in law. Students can earn a Juris Doctor degree at the school and, upon passing the state bar examination, can practice law in Alabama.
A practical teaching philosophy taught by practicing attorneys and judges has evolved into a practical application of the law. Students have embraced the philosophy and learn from the first-hand knowledge that is imparted to them from their professors who work in the courtroom all day.
Graduates of the Birmingham School of Law have achieved recognition as appellate court judges, trial judges, district attorneys, respected attorneys, and Bar Association officials throughout the State of Alabama. Many graduates have made outstanding contributions through political positions while others have excelled in the field of business.
Judge Hugh Allen Locke was a prominent Birmingham attorney, Judge of the Chancery Court, and president of the Birmingham Bar Association. A request from law encyclopedia salesman L.M. Harris planted the seed that led to Locke’s founding of the Birmingham School of Law in 1915. Harris asked Locke if he would tutor 23 young men who bought copies of Chadman’s Cyclopedia of Law. Locke agreed to coach the students, and with the help of Mr. Bowman, another attorney, the Birmingham School of Law began in September 1915. Classes were held in Locke’s office in the Title Guarantee Building in Birmingham and later moved to the John Wesley Room at the First Methodist Church.
The University of Alabama was the only law school in the state at that time, and lawyers simply read the law and took an exam before the Probate Court. That requirement changed in 1923 when the bar examination was established in Alabama. In the establishment of Birmingham School of Law, Locke realized that there were young men and women who could not afford an education at the University of Alabama and who were interested in studying law at night.
In 1918, Birmingham-Southern College President Dr. Guy E. Snavely, asked Locke to move the school to his campus. It became the Birmingham-Southern College Law Department and was part of the curriculum of the Arts and Sciences under the leadership of Locke, who was dean of the school. Its first year was successful with all courses meeting the requirements of a first-class law school as indicated by the American Bar Association and the American Law School Association. Enrollment in that class totaled 42 men and women.
While at Birmingham-Southern, faculty members included outstanding attorneys and judges in the community. The faculty were fond of Locke, and the school never had trouble getting teachers. Faculty members said teaching gave them the chance to brush up on their specialty, and it was a benefit for all parties. Professors of the school, past and present, are practicing attorneys and judges who teach because of their love for the law and a desire to encourage students to accept the opportunity for service and achievement that a law degree affords. The purpose of the school, as it still remains today, was “to offer an opportunity for a high quality, affordable legal education to individuals who cannot attend the traditional law school for financial, family, or occupational reasons.”
A few years after the law school joined Birmingham-Southern College, the National Association of Colleges informed Snavely that the presence of the law school on his campus made the college a university. A million dollars was needed to endow the law department, so he and Locke agreed the law school would relocate.
School Relocates to Jefferson County Courthouse
After leaving Birmingham-Southern, Birmingham School of Law opened classes the next semester at the Birmingham YMCA in conjunction with the overall program of the YMCA and its educational department. The partnership with the YMCA continued until 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Locke assumed all the risks of salaries and expenses and moved the school to the Jefferson County Courthouse under a lease agreement with the County. The school began operating as a totally independent school. With the cooperation of the teachers, classes continued with little interruption.
Meeting at the courthouse was ideal, and the students enjoyed the environment of the school. Students tried mock cases in the courtroom while fellow students and guests observed from the jury box, often acting as jurors. The students gained practical experience from the many mock trials in which they participated over the years. Another benefit of the courthouse location was the use of the Courthouse Library, which also served as the library for the Birmingham Bar Association. The law students had access to one of the best law libraries in the state as part of the lease agreement for use of the Courthouse space.
The school didn’t close during the Depression, but operation proved to be difficult during World War I and World War II. President Woodrow Wilson was in favor of the continuation and operation of all schools, including law schools. However, President Franklin Roosevelt had no patience with law schools. No exemption was given to a teacher if he was practicing law. The school lost many students and professors during World War II. With mostly women students at the school during war time, Locke doubled up on his duties to make up for the absence of the other teachers. He and the school weathered the crisis with 30 to 40 students and never missed a class.
Following the war, the government implemented the GI Bill for the education of service men, and Birmingham School of Law was approved for veteran’s benefits. The number of students increased at a rapid rate to more than 150. The school held high standards and covered a full curriculum of courses over four years of training, five nights a week from September through June.
Birmingham School of Law used only practicing attorneys and judges as professors. Lawyers who specialized in a particular field would teach that course. That practice continues today.
Locke was proud of the school’s female students and supported them in the founding of the State of Alabama’s first chapter of Phi Delta Delta legal fraternity during the 1950s. Now known as Phi Alpha Delta, the fraternity was dedicated to promoting high standards of scholarship, professional ethics, proficiency and achievement among women in law schools and in the legal profession. Birmingham School of Law graduate Ellene Winn lived out those standards when she became the first female partner at Bradley Arant in Birmingham and the first female partner in a law firm in the Southeast.
A Monumental Decision
The written bar examination became a requirement for all law students in 1962. Shortly after the Birmingham School of Law celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1965, school leaders found themselves in a decade-long fight that would determine the survival of the law school.
Following the death of his father in 1971, Hugh A. Locke Jr. assumed the role of dean and led the effort to save the Birmingham School of Law and the other two non-accredited law schools in the state of Alabama.
In 1974, a resolution was being considered by the Committee on Admission to the Bar and Legal Education to amend Rule 4(c) which would deny a person the right to take the bar examination unless such person attended and graduated from a law school that was approved by the American Bar Association or the Association of American Law Schools. Adoption of this resolution would result in the closing of Birmingham School of Law, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, and Miles Law School.
During the years that this issue was at the forefront of the law schools, Locke lobbied members of the Bar Commission and the Supreme Court to vote in favor of the non-accredited schools. When the Supreme Court ruling was finally handed down in 1985, the amendment was defeated with only one dissenting vote and Birmingham School of Law remained open to serve the people of Birmingham and the State of Alabama.
Leading into the 21st Century
In May 1996, Birmingham School of Law left the Jefferson County Courthouse and moved its classes to the Frank Nelson Building in downtown Birmingham. Students continued to seek out the school for their legal education, and the school kept growing. Birmingham School of Law alumnus Tom Leonard assumed the role of dean from 1994 to 2002, and Birmingham School of Law graduate Ginger Tomlin served as dean until 2006.
Current dean James J. Bushnell assumed his duties in 2007 and has continued efforts to make Birmingham School of Law a top choice for a legal education. In his first year, the school implemented a senior seminar program which includes a bar review course that prepares students for the bar examination. Currently, this program is unique to Birmingham School of Law, but other schools are beginning to consider similar programs.
In the fall of 2009, the school began offering a Saturday full-time program for law students, only the fourth school in the U.S. to do so. Students can get every class they need on Saturday and still graduate in four years. Students come to Birmingham School of Law from all over the Southeast to attend the Saturday classes.
A milestone for the school occurred in December 2013 when Birmingham School of Law relocated to the Judge Hugh A. Locke Building at the corner of 3rd Avenue South and 22nd Street. This move marks the first time the school has held classes in its own building. The new state-of-the-art facility includes a 100-seat multimedia auditorium, a formal moot courtroom, an extensive legal library, an innovative computer lab, state-of-the-art classrooms, and a bookstore. The move increased the capacity of the school substantially.
In another first, John P. Rigrish was appointed president of Birmingham School of Law, a new position for the law school. Rigrish reports to the board and serves as the chief executive officer of the school with broad delegated responsibility for its operations.
A Century of Tradition
As Birmingham School of Law celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2015, family, friends, students and officials of the school will look back over the years with pride at the accomplishments the school has enjoyed while staying true to its purpose – “to offer the opportunity for a high quality, affordable legal education to those individuals who cannot attend the traditional law school for financial, family, or occupational reasons.” Average enrollment at the school is around 400 and continues to grow.
The long ago efforts of Judge Hugh Locke will also be remembered by those affiliated with Birmingham School of Law. Those efforts were touted in a 1969 address to the school by then Birmingham trial attorney and Birmingham School of Law professor Bibb Allen. “When someone said that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man, he might as well have had the Birmingham School of Law and Judge Hugh Locke in mind,” Allen said. “It has been Judge Locke’s genius, his leadership, his love of the law, his interest in helping young men become lawyers, his inspiration, his hard work that have enabled this fine institution to enrich the lives of all those who have come under its influence, as well as to enrich the life of our state and nation.”
Clarence W. Allgood (1902)-1991), a United States federal judge
James D. Martin, a retired Republican politician from Alabama
Richard Shelby, Senior United States Senator from Alabama
Mike D. Rogers, the U.S. Representative for Alabama’s 3rd congressional district since 2003
Kim Chaney, Cullman County district judge
David Cromwell Johnson, attorney
Bernard Kincaid, former mayor of Birmingham
James Martin, U.S. Representative
Charles McCrary, Chief Executive Officer of Alabama Power Company
Jabo Waggoner, Alabama State Senator
Morris K. Sirote, co-founder of Sirote & Permutt law firm
M.C. Zanaty, local attorney and Lebanon consul
Locke Donaldson, Special Circuit Court Judge & Senior Trial Referee
Judge Leigh Clark
Judge J. Russell McElroy
Judge W.A. Jenkins
Judge William I. Grubb
James E. Simpson
Judge W.A. Jenkins, Jr.
Judge James O. Haley
Judge Sam Pointer
Judge William Barber
Judge Clarence Allgood
Judge Tom Huey
Judge Hugh A. Locke