By Brian Brennan
Youngstown State University began in 1908 when the local YMCA offered a course in commercial law. Unknown to many today, this was also the origin of a full-fledged law school.
Yes. We once had a law school in Youngstown.
The Youngstown Law School was established by the YMCA in 1910. Administered by a dean and staffed by nine part-time instructors drawn from the ranks of local jurists, the school was authorized by the state of Ohio to award bachelor-level law degrees in 1920.
Of all the Y’s academic programs, the law school had the highest enrollment and was the most prestigious.
Initially, admission requirements were low.
To cite one example, a student named Alvy Witt received his law degree from Youngstown just before he was awarded his high school diploma (Witt later became a respected judge for the State of Ohio).
In 1925, education officials in Columbus raised admission standards, which coincided with those recommended by the American Bar Association. Youngstown followed suit.
By 1927, the law school required two years of college followed by five years of law school. Enrollment peaked during the 1925-26 academic year with 242 students; however, the stricter standards led to a decline in the number of law students.
In 1931, the law school was suspended by the YMCA Board of Trustees. The legal community feared that there was already an oversupply of lawyers in the Mahoning Valley, with the Depression making things worse as supply exceeded demand.
Ever-increasing standards also made things difficult for the school, as a Bachelor of Arts degree now became a prerequisite for admission. Thinking it wise to emphasize the Y’s other academic programs, the trustees voted to terminate what they saw as a financial liability.
After a year’s hiatus, a committee was set up to investigate the law school’s resurrection. In 1933, the law school reopened, with the trustees placing full control of the school into the hands of YoCo Director (later President) Howard Jones.
The law school was now an integral part of Youngstown College, offering the institution’s first graduate-level curriculum. It was even provided with a decent space for its law library in the new Main Building (now Jones Hall), the general library being relegated to the building’s attic. Also, with the merger, the law school benefitted from YoCo’s statewide accreditation.
In 1944, Youngstown College became independent of the YMCA.
The law school continued operations until it finally closed its doors for good in 1957. Reasons for its demise included a further tightening of ABA standards, increasing costs, a lack of national accreditation (graduates could not take their bar exams outside of Ohio), and a diminishing need for a law school in Youngstown when others were in close geographical proximity.
In 1969, in a fitting postscript to the story, Youngstown State University promoted the law school alumni to the degree of Juris Doctor in a special ceremony.
For further information, read Alvin Skardon’s “Steel Valley University: The Origins of Youngstown State,” available in Maag Library.