175 Years of Carolina Law Excellence

December 20, 2019

This article originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2019 issue of Carolina Law.

From “one little room” to thousands of alumni worldwide, the state’s oldest professional school reaches its terquasquicentennial milestone at the turn of the decade.

By Melissa M. Hyland ’13, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, Reference and Faculty Research Services Librarian

The University of North Carolina School of Law celebrates its 175th anniversary during the 2019-2020 academic year. Since opening its doors in 1845, Carolina Law has played an integral role in shaping the history and progress of North Carolina. The stories of our alumni, faculty, staff, and students bear this out. While it is impossible to tell the full story of Carolina Law in a single article, this piece will focus on many of the highlights in the institution’s 175-year history.


In 1845, William H. Battle taught the University’s first law class in “one little room 16 by 18 feet, furnished with half [a] dozen split-bottom chairs” (Coates, 1946). As the first professor of law at the University of North Carolina, Battle designed a curriculum for his students that drew from the best traditions of the legal apprenticeship system and included courses that would prepare students for legal practice in the state of North Carolina. In addition to studying the traditional legal texts, students also learned about North Carolina statutory law and the decisions of the state courts, held moot courts, drafted pleadings and other legal instruments, and received instruction “in the practice of the courts” (Coates, 1946). This curriculum proved effective, with later UNC President Kemp P. Battle reflecting that students under his father’s tutelage “made a far better showing [in the bar examination] before the Supreme Court than those who had read the law under the general supervision of a lawyer and thought they understood it, but had never been called on to tell what they know” (Battle, 1907).

The University of North Carolina joined a small number of universities in pioneering the development of the American law school, and indeed UNC remained the only university in North Carolina to offer training for lawyers until long after the Civil War. The law program grew at a steady pace under Battle’s management during those early years, with ten students registered in 1847-48 and growing to a
peak of twenty-eight students in 1857-58. While the University remained opened during the Civil War, it was closed in 1868 and did not fully reopen to students until 1877. Despite this setback, the success of this new law program was never truly in doubt.

John Manning assumed the professorship of law in 1881 and served as the principal instructor until his passing in 1899. During his tenure, Manning secured official status for the program’s LLB degree and ensured that the law program was an established department at the University.

As the law program grew, so did the need for more physical space. During much of Manning’s tenure, the law program was based out of one room in the Old West Building that seated about fifty students. In 1901, under the leadership of Dean James C. MacRae, the program moved to a larger room in South Building, and then finally secured the entirety of the Smith Building a few years later.

The law library also grew by leaps and bounds during this period. Following the death of Professor Manning in 1899, his wife donated his personal collection of over 2,000 law books to the school. A few years later, in 1907, alumni gave a fund of $5,000 to formally create the John Manning Memorial Law Library.

By the close of the 19th century, Carolina Law held a secure place within the larger university, continued to attract larger numbers of students each year, and played an increasingly important role in training the lawyers who would go on to shape the legal future of the state.

Read the full article in Carolina Law.