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The Impact of the GI Bill on Legal Education

by brandon bigelow

11 Beacon Street


Founded in 1929 at Eleven Beacon Street in downtown Boston, Boston College Law School promised “to prepare young men and women of intelligence, industry and character, for careers in public service in the administration of justice.” It was, from the outset, a school of uncommon vision and ideals with a uniquely Catholic outlook: “the Boston College Law School is dedicated to the philosophy that there is in fact an objective moral order, to which human beings and civil societies are bound in conscience to conform.” Among the most important features to founding Dean Dennis A. Dooley was a fully-accredited night school, something sorely missing in Boston, so that working students could one day realize their ambitions to leave their daily jobs to practice law anywhere in the country.

Even as the Depression set in, the law school made steady progress. Dean Dooley and the law school’s regent, Reverend John B. Creeden, S.J., enforced such rigorous academic standards that fifty percent of the first class either quit or flunked out. These exacting standards paid dividends three years later, however, when the American Bar Association (“ABA”) granted accreditation to the law school with the first graduating class. Membership in the Association of American Law Schools (“AALS”) followed in 1937. In 1938, with a student enrollment of 382, the law school ranked as the thirteenth largest in the country.

By October 1941, Boston College Law School — then located at 441 Stuart Street in Boston — enjoyed an increasingly influential position in the Boston legal community. In that year and for many years to follow, the law school sponsored the “Red Mass” to mark the opening of the judicial year. The mass, delivered by the dean of the law school, Reverend William J. Kenealy, drew some of the state’s most prominent leaders, including the governor, the chief justice and entire bench of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the attorney general, and the U.S. attorney. Under Father Kenealy’s inspired leadership, “[p]lans were discussed and formulated for broadening the influence of the school in all fields of legal action –- judicial, administrative and legislative ... The future was indeed bright -– and then came Pearl Harbor.”

Although World War II presented challenging times for Boston College — and indeed, nearly destroyed the law school — the post-war period also presented unique opportunities. Returning veterans, flush with money provided by the federal government through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — the so-called “GI Bill of Rights” or simply the “GI Bill” — financed an ambitious transformation of Boston College Law School from a well-respected regional school to one of national stature. While the character of the law school changed radically during these years, the stated mission of the law school remained the same –- to provide training for young lawyers who wanted to do some good in the world.

The impact of the GI Bill on legal education has never been explored, although such a study provides unique insight into very modern issues. This Article presents a case study of Boston College Law School, an institution that changed dramatically in the decade and a half immediately following World War II. Part I explains the evolution of the GI Bill and the impact this federal education program had upon Boston College Law School. Among the most important features of the GI Bill was the rigid insistence that veterans not incur any debt to finance their education. Part II traces the development of the Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952 — the “Korean GI Bill” — a profoundly different program both in its conception and application. The experience of Korean War veterans at Boston College Law School, and their migration from regular daytime students to working night school students, demonstrates the impact of rising tuition costs that exceed a student’s ability to pay. Part III examines the expansion of federal student loans, inspired by the successes of the two GI Bills. It concludes that although the transition from a regional to a national law school was a worthy goal, Boston College Law School — indeed, legal education as a whole — missed an opportunity to bring the ideals of the law school and the profession more closely in alignment. In short, federal student loans do not relieve private law schools of a continuing obligation to expand access to legal education for those who cannot otherwise afford to pursue careers in the law.

Next: Part I—The Original GI Bill and the Impact of Returning Veterans on Legal Education