The Magazine

The Brandeis Effect

Close study leads to deep admiration for the justice.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By G. EDWARD WHITE
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In the fall of 1875, Brandeis, at the age of 19, matriculated at Harvard Law School, having prepared for his legal studies by reading James Kent's four volume treatise, Commentaries on American Law. When he completed his course at Harvard in the late spring of 1877, he had accumulated the highest grade point average ever achieved by a law student at Harvard, a distinction he still held when he died in 1941. He was, however, technically not eligible to receive his degree in June 1877, or to be class orator at the graduation ceremony--despite being chosen as such by Dean C. C. Langdell and the rest of the Harvard faculty--because he had not met Harvard's requirement that students be at least 21 years old to receive degrees.

President Charles Eliot explained the decision to Brandeis: "The rule is that the orator is to be one who receives a degree. [University rules say] that you can't have a degree before you are 21. You will not be 21 until November. Commencement is in June. I don't see, Mr. Brandeis, how you can be the orator."

The Harvard law faculty, on the morning of graduation, responded to Eliot by giving Brandeis a special dispensation, which allowed him to graduate cum laude, the highest honors then available. Another student was named class orator.

Brandeis was regarded by his law school peers, straightforwardly, as a remarkably gifted and accomplished student with poise and charm. He was very likely the only person of Jewish ancestry in his class, but I have found no evidence that any of his law student contemporaries characterized him as "a Jew." Nonetheless, things were not all roses for Brandeis at Harvard. Never one to talk much about himself outside intimate circles, he declined to discuss, to the world at large, his financial and physical struggles in law school. Those involved health and money.

For the first time in his life Brandeis neglected regular physical exercise at Harvard, staring for long hours at casebooks, digests, and treatises. The first student-edited legal academic journal, the Harvard Law Review, would not come into existence until 1887, so in its place Brandeis threw himself into "moot court" competitions, which were staged through student clubs. The clubs, like Harvard College's social clubs, had a prestige hierarchy, and Brandeis was a member of the most elite of those clubs, the Pow Wow, sponsored by Dean Langdell.

He impressed faculty and students both with his analytical and forensic skills in moot court arguments and in the classroom, but he strained his eyes. He could not focus them properly for most of his final year as a student, and needed to have other students read to him as he prepared for his examinations. The problem was eventually diagnosed as nearsightedness, and it would clear up by the time Brandeis entered law practice.

Characteristically, Brandeis "learned a lesson" from the experience of straining his eyes, as he did from his second difficulty at Harvard, money. The lesson from eye strain was not to work overmuch, especially not for long periods at a time, and to rely on his remarkable ability to sift and synthesize information quickly. The lesson from being poor was a simple one: Support oneself.

At the time Brandeis entered Harvard Law School the family income had been dramatically reduced. The mercantile firm owned by his father, Adolph Brandeis, was affected by a significant downturn in the economy of the former Confederacy that took place after 1873, and Adolph, apparently always a bit of a plunger, compounded his difficulties by unfortunate investments in the cotton trade.

By 1875 Adolph Brandeis had sunk from being a prosperous merchant to being a bill collector, and LDB needed to borrow money from his older brother to get from Louisville to Cambridge, pay the $150 yearly tuition fee, and meet his room and board expenses. For a year he ate sparingly and studied hard, and at the end of the year was offered a scholarship. Instead, encouraged by Professor Charles Bradley, Brandeis became a tutor of undergraduate and law students, including Bradley's son. His income from tutoring was sufficient to keep him well afloat for his second year.

The lesson was plain: Make use of one's talents and live frugally, and one can not just survive but eventually thrive financially. Brandeis was to do both in spades in his 20-year career as a Boston lawyer, becoming a millionaire by the turn of the 20th century.

Getting an initial job with a firm was yet another struggle. After staying on at the Law School for a third year of graduate study, during which he received additional income from a proctorship at Harvard College, Brandeis resolved to go on the legal job market in 1878. He was persuaded by his sister and her husband, who lived in St. Louis, to open up a practice in that city.