Elder Oaks gives high marks to BYU law school

In 1973, Dallin H. Oaks spoke to the entering class and faculty of the J. Reuben Clark Law School. On Thursday Aug. 23, Elder Oaks, now of the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke again to individuals involved with the law school. As he spoke 39 years ago, he focused on a future of potential. This time, he spoke of the great things that have happened over the past four decades.

“We believe these graduates, whether in the legal profession or elsewhere, are using their law degrees and the critical and analytical skills they honed in law school in a multitude of ways that make us proud of their impact on the lives of their clients and families and on the legal and moral environment of their communities and in their areas of influence,” said Elder Oaks. “We believe — though we cannot prove — that these lawyers are better off and our communities are better off because of their legal education at BYU.”

In his address during the J. Reuben Clark Law School Founders’ Day Dinner held at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Aug. 23, Elder Oaks spoke of the founding of the law school at BYU — something that he experienced firsthand at the time he began his tenure as the university’s president.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Credit: IRI

“Most of the leading figures in that effort are now gone, so it is timely for me to record my memories,” he said. “I also welcome this opportunity to share my current impressions on how the graduates and faculty of the J. Reuben Clark Law School are achieving the bold expectations with which this law school was initiated over 40 years ago.”

Reflecting first on the attitude Church leaders have had in regard to lawyers, Elder Oaks — who is the 11th lawyer to be sustained as an apostle — joked of how the attitude has “evolved” since Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s first interactions with lawyers.

This attitude of acceptance toward lawyers is reflected in the fact that 13 of the 97 Apostles called thus far in this dispensation have been lawyers, Elder Oaks said. The first was Stephen L Richards, ordained an Apostle in 1917 at age 37. J. Reuben Clark was the second, in 1934.

“The culmination of our Church leaders’ increasing acceptance of lawyers came with the founding of the law school at BYU,” Elder Oaks said. “One could say that the increasing number of lawyers in prominent Church leadership made this inevitable. However, this decision came at a time when it was hardly obvious that it could be successfully accomplished.”

Looking to some of his experiences of helping establish the law school, Elder Oaks walked listeners through a chronological history of the beginnings of BYU law and where it stands today.

The founding of a first-rate law school

“When I was called as BYU president on March 27, 1971, and especially when my appointment was announced on May 4th, I began serious consideration of [certain] matters,” he said.

Appointing a dean, recruiting a faculty, assembling a library, constructing a suitable building and attracting an entering class were all things to consider, Elder Oaks said.

“With ten years as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, including over six months as acting dean, I had more experience with what would be necessary to establish a first-class law school than anything else for which I would be responsible when I became president on August 1.”

Although he was very qualified to help in establishing a law school, Elder Oaks was still not convinced it was the right decision, and spoke of some of his concerns at the time.

“Early on, I repeated my concerns to the BYU Board of Trustees in a way that I hoped would be helpful in preparing them to think realistically about the difficulties and costs of establishing a first-class law school,” he said. “I shared my doubts that there were enough active experienced LDS law professors in the entire country to provide the needed nucleus for a first-class law school. I gave my expert advice that establishing such a law school would be extremely expensive. And I made the obvious point that it would be a big mistake to have a law school at BYU that was second-class.”

Yet, regardless of his concerns, Elder Oaks spoke of the commitment he made to Church leaders who were firm in their decision to open a law school.

“To me and my fellow leaders in the University, the decision to establish a law school had now been made by men we sustained as prophets, seers and revelators,” he said. “We assured the First Presidency and the Board that we would seek the inspiration and expend the efforts to make the J. Reuben Clark Law School the best law school it could be.”

With miracles happening all along the way, Elder Oaks and his team — including Robert K. Thomas, Bruce C. Hafen, Carl S. Hawkins, dean Rex Lee and advice from former BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson — were able to create and build the law school from the ground up.

There were many miracles along the way. More than 100 well-qualified young men and women who could have been admitted to many first-class established law schools enrolled as BYU’s first law school class, when the school was not yet accredited. Accrediting authorities eventually approved a new law school whose sponsoring Church did not yet extend the blessings of holding its priesthood to all worthy male Church members and whose tuition would be 50 percent higher to those who are not members of the Church. “Logically, [the accrediting authorities’] doubts were eventually overridden by the undeniable quality of the faculty, student body, library, financial resources and university affiliation,” Elder Oaks said. “But to me, the true explanation is the blessings of the Lord. A miracle occurred.”

Another miracle was the timing, Elder Oaks said.

“As I look back on this, I marvel at the inspired wisdom that impelled us to go forward in 1971,” he said. “Since that time, the forces opposing religion in public life have strengthened to the point that it is providential that we were accredited and could establish the record we have established in a friendly time. If we had waited until we thought we were ready by objective standards, we might not have been able to be accredited, or would have been faced with requirements that might have caused us to forego our attempt.”

The unfolding mission of the law school

During the 1973 ceremony in which Elder Oaks welcomed the first class, he said, “The special mission of this law school and its graduates will unfold in time.”

Nearly four decades later, Elder Oaks shared what the law school has done to define that mission.

“The accomplishments of BYU law graduates are impressive for any law school, but especially for one that has been graduating students for only a third of a century,” he said, citing the number of state and federal judges as nearly 100, 12 graduates have served as law clerks in the U.S. Supreme Court, and many local, state and federal political leaders have come out of the BYU Law School.

“We who value Church leadership are impressed that 72 of our BYU law graduates have been called as mission presidents and 18 have been called to leadership as Seventies, eight of these as General Authorities,” he said. “Hundreds of our stakes and wards have been blessed by the leadership of BYU-trained lawyers, both men and women.”

Just as the accomplishments of the graduates are impressive, so are the accomplishments of faculty and the overall quality of legal education offered at BYU, Elder Oaks said. The relatively low cost is also a great advantage for the school, minimizing its students burden in repaying student loans.

Drawing from his granddaughter’s experience as a mother while a law student at BYU, Elder Oaks said that the law school is unusual and unique in its support of women.

“I am proud that BYU’s law school has been actively engaged in welcoming women into the study, practice and teaching of law,” he said. About one-third of the law school’s current students and full-time faculty are women.

Looking to the past to build the future

“Many things can go wrong or be a distraction to students, faculty or the administration, and if they don’t happen that is a credit to the enterprise,” Elder Oaks said. “Considering all of the things that could have gone wrong with this law school and its students and faculty from the time of its founding to the present [and didn’t], I give the J. Reuben Clark Law School very high marks.”

One of the mortal achievements of eternal significance is to contribute to the success of an endeavor established by the Lord to bless His children, he said.

“As I said to the first entering class and faculty of the J. Reuben Clark Law School 39 years ago this month: We are privileged to participate in this great venture. It is our duty to make it great. He who builds anything unto the Lord must build in quality and flinch at no sacrifice toward that end.”

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