Enter William C. Sprague, a young and savvy Ohio-born lawyer with a very big idea. Before attending the Cincinnati Law School, Sprague, the son of a Congressman, had graduated from Baptist-run Denison University. At Denison one of his professors was a very young and cherubic William Rainey Harper. Fired by both academic ambition and personal missionary zeal, Harper was already experimenting with teaching Hebrew to non-resident students by mail. The surprisingly successful effort impressed Sprague, who kept in touch with Harper after they both left Denison. Sprague headed to Cincinnati and then west to practice with an older lawyer before moving back east to Detroit, Michigan, where he set up his own practice with a small legal publishing enterprise on the side. Harper meanwhile went to Yale, became a leader of the Chautauqua movement, and then of course ended up being selected by John D. Rockefeller to become the first president of the new University of Chicago in 1891 (included in Harper's original plans for Chicago was, by the way, a significant "university extension" arm that would teach by correspondence).
Sprague was doing well, but he thought he could do better. He was aware of the limitations of contemporary law office training for lawyers; having already helped a student in another state pass his bar exam, he thought his method could be generalized. In 1889, remembering Harper's example, he hit upon the notion of organizing a stand-alone correspondence-based law school that would teach law by mail. It would be, as he saw it, the first commercial correspondence school in the world. From his Midwest base in Detroit, high-speed rail links would carry his texts and lessons out, and bring student papers back. He could launch his program as a spin-off of his publishing house; after all, he was already producing legal texts, and the formulation of supplementary materials could not be that hard. If correspondence instruction could work for a subject as obtuse as Hebrew, why not for Contracts? Sprague was arguably inspired not just by the prospect of monetary gain but also by his own brand of missionary dedication. He was a favorite Detroit Sunday School instructor in an age of great Sunday School instructors, and he seems to have seen law as something of a civilizing and perhaps even unifying social gospel in the latter years of the Gilded Age. I think it was no coincidence that when the "Sprague Correspondence School of Law" launched in 1890, its defining symbol, used in virtually all its advertising through its first decade of existence, was a cherub at the shoulder of a man learning the law.
In modern terms Sprague's experiment was staggering in its audacity. He had chosen to hitch his personal wagon to the most radical pedagogical innovation of his day, one that attempted to bring higher education right to the student's door, just like the Sear's catalog (the roots of which notably go back to 1888, two year's before Sprague's school opened). He was reaching out to an indeterminate audience of students without the benefit of an overwhelming professional pedigree (Sprague was no Joseph Choate or Elihu Root!) or a recognized university base. But Sprague was energetic, shrewd and careful. While consistently highlighting the failures of apprenticeship, he pointedly chose to position his school not as something "better" than university law school instruction, but as something that could substitute for that if the option was not available. And he worked incredibly hard. He published a special modernized version of Blackstone to serve as a basic text. He formulated "quizzers" to help his students master the material. He hired assistants to mark student tests. He even published the first law student magazine, "The Law Students' Helper", to encourage his students and others like them in more traditional academic venues to keep up with their studies.
Most amazing of all (at least to those of us acculturated to believe that all correspondence schools are fraudulent, law correspondence schools especially) Sprague's students succeeded. In the first ten years of his school's existence, virtually all of the students from his full course who sat the bar in their various states passed. It was a remarkable record. Sprague's success bred commercial imitation. Soon a bevy of copycat correspondence law schools emerged, some serious like Sprague's with substantial capital behind them, others being much more limited efforts by practitioners down on their luck or perhaps looking for a way to make a fast buck. The best of the second wave of correspondence schools were located in Chicago; the city was the hub of the national rail (and hence mail) network that the schools depended on, and in Chicago the schools also had the advantage of being near the benign influence of Harper's university, still struggling with its own correspondence program. Ads for the new schools (some of which quoted Harper's musings on correspondence education, much to his personal chagrin) multiplied along with Sprague's in the magazines and newspapers of the late 1890s and the early 1900s. A legal education counterculture was rapidly emerging.
By this point Sprague was on the defensive. He and his staff tried to counter criticism of correspondence education with a careful article in the mainstream American Law School Review, but the academic nay-sayers would have none of it. Especially after the Panic of 1907 had impacted law school enrollments and finances, they smelled blood. Deans of major law schools, such as Harry Richards at Wisconsin and James Parker Hall at (of all places) Chicago, led the charge. Hall's critique was particularly telling, especially as it followed the unexpected death in 1906 of correspondence education's (and Sprague's) own patron saint, William Rainey Harper.
In 1909, the ABA's Section on Legal Education launched a frontal assault on Sprague and correspondence instruction at its annual meeting on Sprague's own home turf in Detroit. The result of the meeting was a recommendation to limit bar admission standards to some combination of law school and office training, effectively eliminating correspondence legal education as a springboard to the bar. Of course not all states adopted the recommendation, but Sprague had already seen the writing on the wall. Exhausted by overwork and doubtless disillusioned, he turned administration of his school over to deputies and refocused himself on writing children's novels and publishing a new magazine for youth, The American Boy. Eventually in 1915 the Sprague Correspondence School of Law, by then a shadow of its former self, was sold to a competing correspondence law school in Chicago. William Sprague died of influenza seven years later in 1922. He was only 62. When he passed he was hailed for his publishing achievements and for his professional legal work with the Commercial Law League, but some 25 years later an article about him did not even mention his law school.
After Sprague's withdrawal and passing, correspondence legal education in the United States died a slow death. There were a few more interesting experiments, but with bar admission increasingly off the table for most correspondence law school graduates, they and their law schools had literally no place to go. Most of the surviving schools failed in the 1920s or during the Depression of the 1930s. One survived into the late 1970s. Ironically the school that bought out Sprague (the Blackstone Institute) hung on in reinvented form as a paralegal training center and continues to this day.
So were correspondence law schools a failure? They were, to say the least, remarkable institutions. They were fueled by the most visionary educational theories of their time, and staffed by some remarkably dedicated lawyers and law teachers. They appealed to contemporary notions of the "self-made man" and at least in theory they offered legal education to the masses regardless of gender, race or economic status. At the end of the day, however, they arguably bit off more than they could chew. Their pedagogical reach exceeded their grasp and under the impetus of hyper-competition with each other they made political mistakes and ended up putting more emphasis on marketing than instruction. Even so, they might have survived and even prospered had it not been for intervention from the legal and academic establishment. Pedagogical and technological innovation was no match for power and prestige, and the late nineteenth century "disruption" that was correspondence legal education suffered (and died) as a result.
But even in failure the correspondence law schools left a legacy that would be taken up by others. As democratizing agents, the correspondence law schools would be succeeded (at least for a while) by the night schools. Their marketing techniques would echo in the efforts of other would-be mass legal educators like Gleason Archer at Suffolk Law School, who started his evening program in 1906, just as the correspondence programs had passed their apogee. Some of their simple pedagogical devices would be picked up again by the bar review companies that proliferated from the 1970s.
And what of William Sprague? He arguably deserves much more recognition as a dedicated, innovative legal educator than he has received. We all know that history is written by the victors, and the great victors in the battle for dominance of modern American legal education were Christopher Columbus Langdell and the university-based law schools and law professors that took up his case method. We know them well. We know what they did. Their victory has been so complete, however, and their brainwashing of contemporary lawyers (and historians) so thorough that very few people even know that another ambitious and equally plausible vision of American legal education - Sprague's vision - even existed at the same time. But it did. And that vision was much more bold, much more breathtaking, much more potentially pathbreaking and in many respects much more intrinsically American than anything Langdell ever conceived of. Correspondence legal education had its flaws and its limitations, its profiteers and its fly-by-nighters, but at its point of origin it had a remarkably sincere and (at least for a time) successful champion in William Sprague. This missionary man was a true believer.