In the 1850s, few lawyers were trained at university in the common-law world. But new law courses were being established, particularly in the United States, to meet a slowly growing demand for better training.

The universities of Melbourne and Sydney both showed an early interest in teaching law. At the University of Melbourne, flagging enrolments led the university council to open Australia’s first law school in 1857. Unusually for the time, the Supreme Court allowed the law school’s students to qualify as lawyers without passing the court’s law admission exams. This boosted student numbers and guaranteed the law school’s survival.

Thirty-nine students enrolled and attended the inaugural law lecture on 11 March 1857. Their teacher, reader in law Richard Clarke Sewell, told them that lawyers had a bad reputation, but the new course would help to improve it:

it was to rescue the profession from obloquy such as this, to save it from bitter contumely and scorn … that those, whose anxious care has been devoted to the moral and intellectual training of our youth, have proposed to establish that, which, if it be successfully carried out, will, I trust, be, in its highest sense, a School of Law.

The University of Sydney, too, had the power to award law degrees. In 1855 the Sydney University senate passed a by-law that provided for a future law faculty. But lack of funding, the difficulty of attracting students, and a preference among lawyers for apprenticeship rather than university training meant that nothing more was done for several years. In 1857 the university senate recorded, in a petition to Queen Victoria seeking recognition of Sydney University degrees, that the law faculty by-law was not yet in operation.

In Victoria, completing part of the University of Melbourne law course was compulsory for all new lawyers by 1872, exceptionally early for a common-law country. The university had close links with the Supreme Court judges (who made the rules about entry to the profession), and reform-minded lawyers supported university study, combined with apprenticeship, as the way for new lawyers to be trained.

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 Above: Quadrangle and North Wing viewed across the lake at the University of Melbourne in the 1880s