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Law School History

A living legacy of revolution, evolution, and excellence.

In 1908, two Boston women were determined to sit for the Massachusetts bar examination. A lawyer named Arthur Winfield MacLean agreed to tutor them, and other students followed over the next few years until finally a school was established. MacLean’s wife dubbed it Portia Law School after the heroine of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Arthur MacLean became the school’s first dean as Portia became the first institution in the history of law schools devoted exclusively to the education of women.

Beginning in 1920, Portia graduates received the LLB degree. When the school moved into its first permanent building in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, enrollment had reached 228, and the results from the December 1921 Massachusetts bar exam indicated that all the women who passed were graduates of the school.

In 1938, Portia Law School became coeducational, and in 1969, the school was renamed New England School of Law and granted accreditation by the American Bar Association. The school was relocated to Boston’s Park Square area in the 1980s and was elected to the Association of American Law Schools in 1998. At the advent of the school’s second century in 2008, the name evolved to New England Law | Boston, celebrating the incredible urban environment in which the school flourishes.

Supreme discourse

Recent law school history includes significant interaction with members of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1973, Justice William O. Douglas was the first Supreme Court jurist to visit New England Law.

Since 1991, seven other justices from the High Court have taught or spoken at New England Law: Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice Harry Blackmun, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts also taught at New England Law’s International Human Rights Program in Ireland in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Students and faculty are both beneficiaries of these exceptional law school experiences.


New England Law’s first 100 years of legal education history produced a number of firsts.

  • 1923—Ellen L. Buckley became the only woman assistant U.S. attorney in New England.
  • 1923—Blanche Braxton became the first African-American woman lawyer in Massachusetts and, in 1933, the first African-American woman to practice in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.
  • 1926—Margaret M. McChesney became the first woman lawyer to appear before the full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
  • 1931—Dorothy R. Crockett of Providence, RI, received an LLB degree from Portia, becoming the first African-American woman from Rhode Island to earn a law degree.
  • 1934—Ethel E. Mackiernan was appointed to the Nantucket District Court and became the first woman to serve as presiding justice of any court in Massachusetts.
  • Late 1940s—Major Catherine E. Falvey was the only woman to head a department of the American legal staff at the Nuremberg war trials.