While the School of Law was formally founded in 1895, legal studies were a part of the curriculum at the University of Pittsburgh as early as 1843, and its first law degrees were conferred in 1847.

Until well past 1850, the chief method of legal education in America was apprenticeship. In fact, many lawyers did not even have the benefit of such journeyman training. They, like President Abraham Lincoln, prepared themselves for the bar through self-directed reading. So, when the Western University of Pennsylvania (forerunner of the University of Pittsburgh) in the fall of 1843 announced classes in law at "thirty-seven and one-half dollars a term, payable in advance," it was embarking on a largely uncharted course.

That year, the University appointed Walter H. Lowrie (1807-1876), a professor of rhetoric and belle-lettres, to the newly instituted law professorship. The names of the handful of students enrolled in those first law classes are lost to history, but the Board of Trustees' minutes of 1847 tell us that Bachelor of Law degrees were conferred on James C. McKibben, Robert Finney, Matthew Stewart, and Matthew B. Lowrie (who may have been a relative of Professor Lowrie). These four men were the University's first law graduates.

By 1895, however there was still no law school in the city-- a circumstance that galled a small group of prominent Pittsburghers, among them William J. Holland, the Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania. In 1894, a curriculum committee had issued a report to the trustees, stating: "Pittsburgh is the only large city in the United States as yet without a law school. It is manifestly the function of a university to provide such a school." Chancellor Holland went to his friend Judge John D. Shafer, who had led the revival of the law division within the University, and he put the whole matter in his hands. He told him to go ahead, select his own faculty, and organize the school. With that, John D. Shafer (1848-1926) became the founding genius behind the School of Law.

The School of Law has seen many changes since those first 35 students entered the fledgling law school in October of 1895. A moot court program was instituted, law journals were created, the Barco Law Library with its 325,000 volumes was created, and the law school expanded beyond its space in the Cathedral of Learning by moving into the spacious, six-story Barco Law Building in which the school currently resides.

Recent years have also seen dramatic growth in the law school curriculum. While continuing to offer the traditional core courses, such as Property, Torts, and Criminal Law, the school has expanded its curriculum to reflect the increasing importance of additional areas of the law, such as intellectual property, international, and administrative law. Over time, the school became home to programs such as the Center for International Legal Education, the Center for Bioethics and Health Law, and the Innovation Practice Institute. Current course offerings such as Global Health and Human Rights, Elder Law, and Law and Economics, also take into account the interdisciplinary nature of legal practice today.

The law school curriculum is designed to teach students to think like lawyers-both through the traditional classroom experience and through wide-ranging opportunities to experience the law in action. Students in the school's legal clinics earn academic credit while working with actual clients on cases in the areas of elder law, child welfare, health law, and criminal appeals. They may also take advantage of the Externship Program, in which students work for federal and state judges, county district attorneys, and public organizations. "Skills" courses in trial tactics, legislative drafting, and client counseling also help prepare Pitt law students for real-world interactions.

Deans of the School of Law—1895 to the present

  • John Douglass Shafer, 1895-1920
  • Alexander Marshall Thompson, 1920-1940
  • Eugene Allen Gilmore, 1940-1942
  • Judson Adams Crane, 1942-1949
  • Charles Bernard Nutting, 1949-1951
  • Judson Adams Crane (Acting Dean), 1951-1952
  • Brainerd Currie, 1952-1953
  • Arthur Larson (on leave of absence 1954-56), 1953-1956
  • Charles Wilson Taintor II (Acting Dean), 1954-1957
  • Thomas McIntyre Cooley II, 1957-1965
  • William Edward Sell, Chairman, Administrative Committee, 1965-1966;
    Dean, 1966-1977
  • John E. Murray, Jr., 1977-1984
  • Richard J. Pierce, Jr., 1984-1985
  • Mark A. Nordenberg, 1985-1993
  • Richard H. Seeburger (Interim Dean), 1993-1994
  • Peter M. Shane, 1994-1998
  • David J. Herring, 1998-2005
  • Mary A. Crossley, 2005-2012
  • William M. Carter, Jr. , 2012-2018
  • Amy J. Wildermuth, 2018-2023 
  • Haider Ala Hamoudi (Interim Dean), 2023-2023
  • Mary A. Crossley (Interim Dean), 2023-