Elder Oaks at the BYU Founder’s Day Dinner- The history and triumph of the law school

This past week, I started Law School at Brigham Young University- J. Reuben Clark Law School. I am taking a 1L seminar on professionalism and ethics and as part of it we have a lot of really interesting readings that are very relevant to thinking about how to integrate law and the teachings of the gospel.  I want to write a bit about each of those reading assignments because they are all pretty fascinating.


This week, however in particular was a good time to begin these readings. On the 23rd of August was the annual Founder’s Day Dinner and Elder Dalin H. Oaks spoke and directly referenced a speech he gave back in August 27, 1973 as opening remarks for the first law school class.


I want to first share my thoughts on Elder Oak’s Founder’s Day Dinner talk and then share my thoughts on his original remarks.


Elder Oak’s remarks at the Founder’s Day was meant as a brief history of the law school as well as an evaluation of how we are doing.


Elder Oaks began describing what he called the ‘four phases’ of how the church has viewed law and lawyers. First, Joseph Smith of necessity relied upon lawyers but received very bad legal advice. Second, Brigham Young showed an open disregard and hostility towards lawyers. Third, Brigham Young eventually shifted to encouraging the study of law. The fourth phase began with the founding of the law school and led to a greater focus on the importance of lawyers. To date, 13 of the 97 apostles have been legally trained. The first being Stephen L. Richards with Elder Oaks himself the 11th.


Elder Oaks spoke in depth about the foundation of the school.  Interestingly, when he first was approached by the idea of the law school back in 1971 he strongly opposed it and felt it was unrealistic. There were very few LDS scholars with legal acclaim ( only a handful in the whole country) and it would be very difficult to build a 1st class university and not worth the effort to build anything less than a first class one. Yet, the 1st presidency and the 12 were strongly in favor of the decision and pushed onward the foundation of the school.


As Elder Oaks spoke, it was apparent to me that he had been prepared and called of God to lead this process at this point in time. Newly called as the dean of the university, he was perhaps one of the most qualified people in the whole country to found a law school.


A search committee for al aw school dean was founded under close supervision of Elder Oaks as well as the 12 and first presidency. There were three principles that were agreed upon. First, they agreed to make no major decisions until they found a dean. Second, they would not make faculty appointments until they had a dean. Third, they wanted a strong and independent dean that would only report high up to the undergraduate dean himself. Eventually, Rex E. Lee was selected as dean and the work began to find the faculty.


Elder Oaks recounted the many miracles involved in the school founding. One at first reticent professors finally agreed to join the faculty securing its success. Elder Oaks recalled his realization that “The lord really wants a law school and he wants it to be a good one.”

 He spoke about the several miracles that came together for the foundation of the school First, that 100 students took a risk to come to the law school as part of the first class. Second, that the school was able to overcome the reservations of the board of accreditation, which would have been wary due to the priesthood ban and the fact that tuition would cost less for members than non-members. Also, Elder Oaks spoke about the miraculous nature of the timing. He said that in today’s environment such a school would be even harder to found due to increasing secularism and antagonism towards religion.


In the original talk, Elder Oaks said


“We are frequently asked why Brigham Young University is establishing a law school at this time. We have all heard reasons suggested, and many of us have contributed a few. Some of these suggestions are speculative, some reasoned, and some have the ring

10of authority. But the most important fact to be noted on this subject is that the trustees of Brigham Young University, whom we sustain as inspired leaders, have decided that Brigham Young University should have a law school at this time. I have received a confirmation of the divine wisdom of that decision, and I am quite content with that. The special mission of this law school and its graduates will unfold in time.”


At the Founder’s Day dinner he said that the time had come to describe some of the accomplishments of the school since its founding. He then spoke about six of the greatest accomplishments.


1)    The quality of legal education- The BYU law school doubled the amount of lawyers in the state of Utah and also dramatically increased the quality of education through direct competition with the University of Utah Law School.

2)    The great accomplishments of graduates including: 100 state and federal judges; 12 law clerks on the supreme court; 72 grads have been mission presidents; 18 70’s; 8 General Authorities out of 5,570 alumni. These were pretty impressive statistics by any measure.

3)    The quality of the faculty- Especially some of the special programs at BYU such as the center for law and religion. He said that some research done here just could not be done elsewhere because of political correctness.

4)    The increase of women in the law—1/3 of the current class is women which is a lot better than the historical norm at the time of the foundation of the school. Elder Oaks spoke about how the family friendly nature of the school helped show believing women that Law was an appropriate career for Latter-Day Saint women!

5)    The fact that the school has avoided partisanship or an overly political direction

6)    The low tuition costs which allow students to focus on their interests rather than on paying off their debts.


Elder Oaks concluded his remarks with a powerful summation of the importance of the rule of law. He quoted from his 1973 remarks


“Fourth, the J. Reuben Clark Law School must always foster an enlightened devotion to the rule of law. A principal function of law, and thus a principal occupation of lawyers, is the prevention and settlement of disputes. Men of law must understand and help others to understand that despite all the imperfections of law and of lawyers, there is no better system for preventing and settling disputes than the rule of law….By the same token, a lawyer’s predominant professional loyalty should be to the principles of the law, not to the officials who administer them or to the person, organization, or other client in whose interest those principles are applied. A lawyer obviously owes a high duty of loyalty to his client, but the duty he owes to the Constitution and laws is higher still.”

Elder Oaks spoke about how the law is like a wall that protects, and how lawyers are like watchman on the tower!

I loved Elder Oaks remarks and especially felt the spirit really strongly as he spoke. I gained an increased testimony that this law school is founded and led by the Lord. It truly is the Lord’s university.  I felt an increased sense that the Lord has called me to BYU Law and that it is part of his plan for me!


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