Citizen Lawyers from George Wythe to the 21st Century

Professor Davison M. Douglas on George Wythe and the Concept of the Citizen lawyer

How would you become a lawyer in the 18th century?

First, you had to be male. If you met that requirement, you then had three options. (1) You could go to London, and take up residence at the Inns of Court. Because of the expense, this option was rarely practical. (2) You could buy and study your own law books. This was also very expensive and law books were frankly, extremely difficult to understand. Blackstone's Commentary helped with the understanding but not with the expense. (3) Lastly, you could become an apprentice for a local firm. Most apprentices spent most of their time copying legal documents with little to no mentoring from the attorneys.

In the 1740's there was a man, newly admitted to the bar in Virginia, largely self-taught, with facility in seven languages who wanted to change the way lawyers were taught. This man was George Wythe.

Over the next five years, Wythe developed a board curriculum ranging from legal text, ethics and moral philosophy, the Bible, classical languages and more. As the mentor of a bright young student named, Thomas Jefferson, he developed a wider range and breath for the education of lawyers that the other methods could not provide.

When Thomas Jefferson became Governor of Virginia, he also assumed the role of head of Board of Visitors at the College of William and Mary. He used this position to put forth his plan on how best to educate people for self-government. He felt that republic-ism required a largely educated citizenry. He thought that we could go from monarch to Republic by the people only if people prefer the public good over private interest.

To this end Jefferson put forth two initiatives; one to make education widely available to the public, and the other which set up a professor of medicine and a professor of law at the College of William and Mary. The first initiative failed, but the second succeeded and Jefferson chose his mentor, George Wythe, to be the United States' first professor of law.

The Virginia Legislature approved the professorship in December 1779 and Wythe started the school in January 1780 with about 40 students. The students were mostly in their late teens to twenties, with a few older students, including a certain John Marshall.

Wythe taught the common law, the U.S. Constitution, and the other legal texts of the day including Blackstone. He also would gather his students for small tutorials where they would discuss legal doctrine but Wythe desired his students to have more broad exposure. So for example, they also studied economics and religious philosophy, they read text in Latin and French, and he exposed them to other legal systems. He resurrected the moot court without the drunkenness and he started a mock legislature. Every Saturday he would conduct legislative session where he would bring actual bills and the students would debate them.

In 1780, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison applauding the College of William and Mary and especially the mock legislative. Wythe's students became Presidents, U.S. Senators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, judges, state governors, and members of state legislatures. Wythe's influence in the early days of the United States is enormous because of the number of then soon to be future leaders of the nation that he taught.

Wythe's influence is still felt today. Today's legal education involving basic legal texts, the practical arts, Jurisprudence, and legal theory furthers Wythe's vision of a broad ranging legal experience. We should further encompass Jefferson's vision of training lawyers concerned for the greater good. We should each aspire to use our position, as lawyers, well in the service of the broader community.

Dean Taylor Reveley on Citizen Lawyers for the 21st Century

The College of William and Mary School of Law is in a unique position to nurture and promote George Wythe's citizen lawyer ideal. The School has developed three things, which will further breathe life into Wythe's vision:
1. Attract people with the right stuff
2. Give a context into helping other people
3. Develop a center to study the citizen lawyer concept

The Right Stuff
The William and Mary School of Law seeks to employ and educate those who are interested in their own progress but also willing to help others. The School focuses on recruiting people who have and who will continue to give back to the community through service.

You cannot enter the main lobby of the law building without passing the statues of Wythe and Marshall. These men are the epitome of the citizen lawyer. We instruct our students from before they begin classes on the virtues of the citizen lawyer. We have a vibrant public service fund. Our students develop pro bono plan in legal skills, then go out, and complete them. Service is an element in the advancement process of our professors. All this shapes the law school. We not only think about service but we also do something about it.

Center to Study the Citizen Lawyer Concept
We have been working to develop a center to study the citizen lawyer concept. There currently is a $5 million and $25 million variant. This center will give life to the founding ideas of Wythe and Jefferson to educate leaders for the common good. The center will highlight the role of service in legal profession.

When the center is established, we will institute a scholarship program similar to Rhodes scholars. This program will attract the brightest minds in the world, who have an eye towards service. We will build a tight knit community of these scholars probably requiring that they give at least one or two years to public service after completion of the program.

The Center will begin an annual conference together with the business school which will focus on the citizen lawyer concept. The conference will recognize that once people leave campus life gets tougher but far too many organizations talk the talk but do not walk the walk.

The Center will produce much needed research and writing on the concept and will seek to further real life application in business and law firms.

There will be an endowed professorship to lead the effort and the construction of a new pavilion to give the center a real presence where students, faculty and others will be continually reminded of the importance of the citizen lawyer.