The first time he introduced a bill to establish a law school at UCLA, in 1945, it died in committee. Representatives from UC Berkeley told him Los Angeles was too provincial to justify its own law school. 

Undaunted, California State Assembly Member William Rosenthal of Boyle Heights came back and reintroduced the bill in 1947, this time amending an existing bill, which would appropriate funds for additions to UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco into his UCLA bill. After it sailed through the assembly and the senate, Governor Earl Warren requested that Rosenthal go back and split the bill in two again, saying, “I’d like to be able to exercise my own judgment on each bill individually.” The bill once again took a trek through the assembly and senate. Warren signed it on July 18, 1947, appropriating $1 million for the construction of a law school in the heart of the Westwood campus.

The Law Building debuted in 1951. By 1957, the law library it housed grew from 21,000 to 110,000 volumes, making it approximately the 15th largest law library in the country at the time.

The law school’s origins were humble: In 1949, it operated out of a barracks behind Royce Hall. But from the outset, the school seemed — and in fact was — different. Plucky. Scrappy. Unafraid to tackle the hot-button issues of the day. It was at the forefront of a movement to open the doors of a legal education to women and minorities, at a time when many law schools admitted few or none from either group. “In a profession popularly associated with tradition, precedent and the experience of age, UCLA is unique among law schools,” reported The Docket, UCLA Law’s student newspaper for nearly 50 years, in October 1959. The school constantly broke new ground, unbound from tradition, precedent and “Oh, that’s how we’ve always done it here.”

“From modest but ambitious beginnings,” then-Dean Jonathan Varat would write in the 1999 edition of UCLA Law Magazine, marking the school’s 50th birthday, “UCLA School of Law quickly developed into one of the nation’s most innovative, prestigious and productive law schools.” He was biased, of course. Nonetheless, the assessment still rings true, 25 years later. 

“I think that rebellious spirit — the idea that it’s important to challenge the status quo and to rigorously question established power centers — that, in many ways, is the highest and noblest sense of our profession,” says Michael Waterstone ’95, who took over as the school’s 10th dean last year. “We train students with the tools to be able to do that.”

More than seven decades in, the upstart law school in “provincial” Los Angeles has built a rock-solid case for its inclusion among the finest legal institutions in the nation; not even Bill Rosenthal, initially the school’s lone champion, saw this coming. Within and outside its walls, UCLA Law has stood at the forefront of diversity — of gender, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background — and innovation in legal education. Meanwhile, UCLA legal minds have worked steadily and tirelessly on behalf of the public interest, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, Native nations, people who are undocumented and those in the nonprofit sector, most recently with this year’s launch of the UCLA Lowell Milken Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofits. 

It’s not a stretch to proclaim that over its 75 years, the UCLA School of Law has literally changed the face of American jurisprudence. 

From the Start, a Mission

UCLA Law’s first graduating class in 1952 comprised 45 men and five women, taught by 10 faculty members. Dorothy Nelson ’49, J.D. ’53, a member of the school’s second graduating class, remembers sweating in the stuffy barracks in her first year before classes were moved into the sparkling new Law Building in 1951. Needless to say, student mood improved. 

Roscoe Pound, who had been dean of Harvard Law School for 20 years and is today one of the most revered figures of modern American jurisprudence, was a founding member of the UCLA Law faculty. Pound ushered in another innovation, albeit not quite as august: He procured a table for ping pong, which he said was good for the eyes. “At noontime, to be able to go and play a game of ping pong was unheard of in any law school that we knew of,” recalls Nelson, now 95 and a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Courtesy of UCLA Law
The Class of 1952. Students had begun studying in the new Law Building the year before.

Class sizes were predictably small the first few years, making faculty easily accessible and approachable. “They took a great deal of interest in us,” says Nelson, who wound up taking seven courses with Pound. Upon graduation, she got a job at the University of Southern California, where she became the first female faculty member, and later, in 1969, the first woman dean at a major U.S. law school. 

Norman Abrams, who joined in 1959 and now holds the record as the longest-serving member of the faculty, remembers the comity that existed among faculty members, even those of differing political orientations. An unusual feat at a law school — and something that today seems all but impossible. “Lawyers and law professors tend to be high-powered people who like to express their views, and often their disagreements can lead to friction. We had a core group of faculty who were great scholars and just lovely human beings,” he says. “I think that set the tone.”

Richard Maxwell, who became dean of the law school in 1958

Under the decadelong stewardship of Dean Richard Maxwell, which began in 1958, the school marched toward increasing diversity in the ranks of both its teachers and its student body. The number of women graduates leapt from two in 1958 to 13 in 1969; a steady push for greater minority representation was systematized with the introduction of the Legal Educational Opportunity Program (LEOP) in the fall of 1966. In his definitive 2018 book, The Integration of the UCLA School of Law, 1966–1978: Architects of Affirmative Action, Miguel Espinoza argues that “a group of UCLA law school professors sparked the era of affirmative action by creating one of the earliest and most expansive race-conscious admissions programs in higher education.” 

“Maxwell became a strong supporter of it and pushed it,” Abrams recalls. “He was open to that. His values were just first-rate, and he was open to innovation.” 

The first LEOP students enrolled in 1967, with 13 Black and four Latino students in a class of 210. From there, the program blossomed. Just two years later, there were 47 LEOP students in its entering class — 26 Black, 19 Chicano and two Native American. “The faculty also adopted the expansion of admissions quotas to 32 Black, 32 Chicano and 2 Native American students for each entering class,” Albert Muratsuchi J.D. ’94 wrote in a 1995 report titled “Race, Class, and UCLA School of Law Admissions, 1967–1994” (which appeared in UCLA’s Chicano Latino Law Review, the first U.S. law journal to explore law and policy from a Chicano/a and Latino/a perspective). Muratsuchi, now a California assemblymember, continued, “This expansion gave UCLA the largest affirmative action program of any law school in the country.”

From Theoretical to Practical

In 1970, the San Francisco Bay Area was the place to be, a magnet of activism and activity that attracted young people from across the globe. Carole Goldberg, then a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of them. 

Eager to get a taste of life on the West Coast, she transferred to Stanford Law School. Taking a seminar course on American Indian law taught by UCLA professor Monroe Price, she turned in a hundred-page research paper on Public Law 280, a 1953 law dealing with federal jurisdiction in Indian country. Price took notice. After Goldberg graduated, he put her name in the hat for a UCLA teaching position. She was being courted by several high-profile universities, but Goldberg chose UCLA “because of the climate,” she says with a wry smile.  

She arrived on the School of Law faculty at age 24, having spent her one year out of school on a federal clerkship. “There was one woman on the law faculty at the time,” says Goldberg, today the Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law Emerita. “Three of us joined in the summer of 1972. Three women joining the same law school faculty at that time was the talk of legal education.” 

Female law students in the 1970s. The first graduating class was 10% women; 2023’s entering class was 63% female. 

The dawn of the 1970s brought with it a push to teach practical lawyering skills. Kenneth Graham, who arrived to teach at UCLA Law in 1963, calls the establishment in 1970 of the clinical program — widely cited as the first of its kind — “the greatest accomplishment of the law school.” Up until then, legal education had been highly theoretical; now came a method that would allow students to see how the law worked in the real world.  

It’s been built on ever since. Today, many of the school’s clinics partner with nonprofits and government organizations, enabling students to work directly with clients to effect change. A prime example: the Tribal Legal Development Clinic, serving Native nations since 1999.

Brad Sears, the founding executive director of the Williams Institute, initially got drawn into the UCLA Law universe by way of one such clinic, working on HIV discrimination cases in the late ’90s. Sears joined the law faculty in 2000. The next year saw the launch of Williams, now a nationally renowned hub of rigorous research focused on LGBTQ communities, the first of its kind in the U.S. Over the better part of the last quarter century, Williams has been on the front lines, battling misconceptions and misinformation about LGBTQ communities. 

One of the institute’s shining moments came in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality — the citation of Williams Institute data on LGBTQ parenting proving instrumental to that decision. Here was the modern law school at work, advancing a righteous position in debates occurring in society and government through the intense research activity of its centers and institutes.  

“Now, we have close to 20 programs and centers at the law school,” says Sears. “That’s changed what the law school is.”

Fighting for a More Just Society

If there is one constant theme at UCLA Law, it’s courage. Specifically, summoning the nerve to address society’s most vexing social issues head-on. Sears says much of the school’s clinical education has historically had a public interest bent, with a focus on advocating for people who are poor, disenfranchised or discriminated against. 

Courtesy of UCLA Law
Law students in the 1990s, when UCLA became the first law school in the nation to offer students the opportunity to specialize in public interest law. Today, one in six law students does.

UCLA Law was the first school to offer a public interest specialization, launching the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy in 1997. The school’s special admissions process for public interest lawyers-to-be remains unique. Applicants must fulfill at least one of three requirements: a commitment to public interest; special abilities or ties that enable the applicant to serve groups or causes lacking adequate access to lawyers; and strengths or expertise relevant to problem solving or policy analysis. Applications for the program’s 25 slots have nearly quadrupled over the last five years alone. Currently, one in six UCLA Law students is enrolled in the public interest specialization.  

Cara Horowitz J.D. ’01 transferred into UCLA during her second year as a law student. At UCLA Law, she met “a group of really fierce and passionate public interest–minded advocates. We were all dedicated to the idea of taking our degrees and making a difference in the world in various ways.” She returned to UCLA in 2008 to lead the Emmett Institute as it got off the ground, helping to create a powerhouse of environmental law and policy thinking. 

Horowitz and her colleagues focus on what she calls “the nitty-gritty implementation questions” that inevitably follow in the wake of companies and jurisdictions pronouncing things like lofty emissions reduction goals. At the recent COP28 summit, the United Nations’ megaconference on climate change in Dubai, Horowitz discovered that a recent UCLA Law student was now leading the Hungary delegation’s negotiating team. “We have now seeded alumni like this all around the world,” Horowitz says, “doing really important climate change work.”

Courtesy of UCLA Law
Susan Westerberg Prager J.D. ’71 was UCLA Law’s longest tenured dean (1982–1998), and one of the first female deans of any law school in the country. 

And while catastrophic climate change looms on the horizon for the entire globe, questions of immigration threaten to do similar damage to the fabric of a divided U.S. The continuous and daily suffering found at the southern border of the U.S. prompted Alicia Miñana de Lovelace J.D. ’87 to act. As chair of the UCLA Foundation Board of Directors, which oversees $5.1 billion in total assets, and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, Miñana de Lovelace knew an investment in the preeminent immigration law scholars at UCLA was worth making. 

A $5 million gift from Miñana de Lovelace and her husband, Rob Lovelace, launched the Center for Immigration Law and Policy, or CILP, in 2020. Hiroshi Motomura, the Susan Westerberg Prager Distinguished Professor of Law and CILP’s faculty co-director, has been a leading thinker in immigration and citizenship law for years, but he’s come to understand that immigration, especially at UCLA Law, is no longer the isolated niche field of study it may have been when he started out in the ’90s. Many of his students, he says, aren’t particularly interested in immigration law, gravitating instead to family, education, labor or criminal law. But they come to “realize that it’s impossible in a lot of communities around the country, including in Southern California, to do any kind of engagement in those areas without having some familiarity with the difference in treatment between citizens and noncitizens.”

Motomura says transnational collaboration is one of the best paths forward in immigration law, citing an eagerness to partner with the National Autonomous University of Mexico in order to create models and best practices for what the U.S. relationship with Mexico should be. That sort of progressive thinking augurs well for the future of the center. “Wayne Gretzky, when someone asked him, ‘Why are you so great?,’ he replied, ‘Well, everyone else skates to where the puck is. But I always skate to where the puck’s going to be,’” he says. “That’s kind of what I see the center trying to do.”

Filling a Need 

So where does UCLA Law go next? Waterstone’s leadership will do much to determine the school’s direction. So far, his positivity has proved infectious. “The guy has boundless energy and incredible optimism,” says Mark McKenna, the school’s vice dean of faculty and intellectual life, and faculty co-director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy. “There’s a lot of good energy in the building, because I think people feel like it’s an opportunity to continue to take this school forward.”

Courtesy of UCLA Law

“The fact that we are a part of the top public research university and we exist in one of the most exciting cities in the world certainly differentiates us from other schools and gives us all kinds of opportunities,” says Michael Waterstone, dean of UCLA Law.

In Norm Abrams’ assessment, the trajectory for UCLA Law has always been up. And he should know: He’s been around for all but the first decade of its existence.

“We have been a leader nationally. With affirmative action, we were one of the first schools,” says Abrams, who served as UCLA’s acting chancellor from 2006 to 2007. “In clinical programs, we were one of the first schools. We developed a number of different centers and institutes on the law school scene: on immigration, on communications, on LGBT issues and critical race studies. Today, most first-rate law schools have similar kinds of profiles, but we were early in that game.”

This now indispensable institution produces top-tier research — particularly through its 16 specialized programs, centers and institutes — shaping both national and international law and policy debates, all while training the next generation of the sharpest and most dedicated legal minds.  

As a public institution, UCLA Law punches above its weight to compete with the best of the nation’s private and Ivy League law schools. And yet the school has emerged as a national leader, with broad expertise, and is ranked No. 14 overall by U.S. News & World Report. “UCLA Law, our faculty and our community have been at the center of and important to every key debate in my lifetime,” Waterstone says.

Heres to the next 75 years.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.