The Fake Law School

How Today’s Written Tennessee Bar Exam Grew from Scandal and Disarray

J. William Farr was a crook. Make no mistake about that. He was also a lawyer, or said he was. Farr started a law school in Nashville in 1899 and sold degrees through the mail. This is the story of Farr’s Nashville School of Law (sometimes National School of Law) and how the antics of a champion huckster and fraudster prompted the state to establish the written bar exam. Sometimes it takes a scandal to bring about reform.

Tennessee lawyer licensing in 1899 was a disgrace. Here is what the Tennessee Bar Association report on legal education said in 1900: “No state requires less, or is more lax in enforcing its requirements, than the state of Tennessee. A license to practice law, procured in Tennessee, imports nothing either as to the character of the holder or his professional requirements. The examinations for admission to the bar, as conducted in this State, are notoriously loose. It is generally accepted that almost any person can, in one way or another, get a license to practice law in the State of Tennessee.”[1]

Letterhead of one of William Farr's "law schools."

What Made the State of Legal Education So Dismal?

Three factors accounted for the dismal state of legal education and licensing in Tennessee. The first was the oral bar exam, which was a farce. The second was the diploma privilege. Derived from an 1859 statute, it allowed anyone with a college diploma to become admitted to practice without a bar exam.[2] (This was Farr’s ticket to money and a criminal conviction.) The third was an obscure licensing provision, dating from 1867, that allowed anyone to practice before a justice of the peace merely by purchasing a license for $5.25. It was the equivalent of allowing such licensees to practice in General Sessions court today. Each of these will be explained because they set the stage for Farr’s over-reaching.

The prime culprit was the oral bar exam. Since before statehood, a potential lawyer simply cornered a judge and asked to be examined. The applicant appeared at the judge’s home, farm, or the courthouse unannounced and beseeched an examination. Most judges did not want to be bothered; they simply signed the applicant’s hand-drawn license and the new lawyer went on his way.

One of the most colorful of these exams occurred in 1822. Josephus C. Guild (1802-1883), after reading law in a reputable office, presented himself to the home of the state’s leading jurist, John Haywood at his farm “Tusculum” outside Nashville. Finding the jurist reading on a bull’s hide under a shade tree, Guild fearfully approached.

Judge Haywood commenced “growling and grumbling” about the imposition. “He called for two negro fellows who waited on him to take hold of the tail of the bull’s hide upon which he was reposing and haul him into the shade.” For the next two hours Haywood pummeled the upstart with questions, and ended the exam with a lecture on trial tactics and ethics, “Never keep a client’s money an hour after it is collected; find him and pay it over to him; thus you will acquire a character for honesty, promptness, and reliability, which to a lawyer, is a jewel above all price.”[3] A happy Guild passed the exam. He became something of the grand old man of Tennessee law, known for his stories.

In time, the applicants appeared on a set “court day” and literally “stood” for the bar. The young man stood at the bar and anyone present peppered him with questions. No pre-law or legal education was required. The exam was akin to a fraternity initiation, and it was — he was allowed to join the legal fraternity. Black applicants were subject to near-abuse, questions continued until no one was left in the court room.

A few applicants were allowed a private bar exam in the judge’s chambers, depending on social status and even gender. (Yes, some women were admitted in this manner.)

Edward Terry Sanford (1865-1930) had graduated from Harvard Law School and was one of the founding editors of Harvard Law Review (1889). Following a grand tour of Europe, he appeared before Tennessee Supreme Court judge Horace Lurton for his oral bar exam. The judge asked him only one question — it was based on a case that Lurton had just decided — and was thrilled to hear Sanford give a “proper” answer. “Young man, you are splendidly equipped; I am not going to ask you another question.”[4] Sanford was later a TBA president and was appointed to the United State Supreme Court in 1923.

The Tennessee Bar Association was instrumental in pushing the bill for a written bar exam. Notable lobbyists were R.E.L. Mountcastle of Morristown, who was Tennessee Bar Association president in 1902-1903; TBA Secretary-Treasurer Robert Lusk of Nashville; and TBA member Thomas N. Greer. For more information about the birth of the Board of Law Examiners, read “Happy 100th Anniversay! Board of Law Examiners Formed in 1903 to Raise the Standard of Admission to the Bar,” by Suzanne Craig Robertson, Tennessee Bar Journal, June 2003,

The TBA is Formed, Works to Raise Standards

The Tennessee bar spun out of control with overcrowding and under-educated lawyers. The elite lawyers decided to take action. In 1881, they formed a selective organization called the Tennessee Bar Association. Membership required sponsorship, and five negative votes rejected a candidate. From the first, the new association (TBA) heard reports and passed resolutions trying to raise education standards. It got nowhere — until J. William Farr came to Chattanooga in 1896 and Nashville in 1899, and the newspaper the Nashville American, got involved.

The second reason for the sorry condition of the profession was home grown. In 1899, Cumberland Law School in Lebanon was the pride of Tennessee and one of the largest law schools in the nation (not just the south). It had a unique one-year program and from its founding in 1845 had trained most of Tennessee’s leading lawyers. A special statute enacted in 1859 provided that any holder of a law diploma was automatically entitled to a law license. (There was only one school to which the law applied, Cumberland.) Indeed, it became a ritual after each Cumberland graduation that the new diploma holders trooped to the circuit court clerk’s office in Lebanon and received law licenses. To illustrate, in 1891, a young man, only 20 years old received a degree from Cumberland one day and his law license the next. His name was Cordell Hull.[5]

The third reason for the disgraceful condition of the profession was a statute passed in 1867 because supposedly the state had a shortage of “loyal” lawyers. (Ex-Confederates could not practice law or vote or hold office.) Anyone, including women, could simply pay $5.25 to the court clerk and get a “lesser” law license which privileged its holder to practice before justices of the peace. Many of these “lesser” lawyers ultimately stood for oral bar exams after they got some experience practicing law!

The combination of the oral bar exam, the diploma privilege, and the “lesser” law license meant the state was awash with lawyers. In 1899 the Tennessee Bar Association estimated there were 1,000 reputable (its word) lawyers in Tennessee. The Census the next year showed 2,700 lawyers — reputable not. The TBA had 175 members.

The state was not merely over-lawyered. It was over-law-schooled. Any school that offered a few law courses was entitled to use the diploma privilege. Diplomas were handed out at places like American Temperance University (Harriman) and Neophogen Male and Female College (Gallatin).[6] The reputable schools included the University of Tennessee Law School (founded in 1890) and Vanderbilt Law School (founded in 1875). Indeed, during the era 1890-1920 Vanderbilt was a serious academic offender — its football team was overloaded with older, bigger, faster and meaner than usual college students — they were mostly law students recruited for their football prowess. A college degree was not a prerequisite for law study anywhere. Indeed, the diploma was called a bachelor of laws degree.

One of the more unusual law “school” programs was offered by Tennessee Central University in Nashville. Also known as Walden University, this was a black school that began offering law classes to its undergraduates in 1879. By 1896 it had graduated the first black woman to attain a degree (supposedly anywhere in the country). Her name was Lutie Lytle, and she taught at the school following her graduation. The school lasted until about 1917.

J. William Farr Comes to Nashville

His full name was James William Jay Farr, supposedly. He showed up in Chattanooga in 1896, insisting he had a law degree from an obscure Chicago law school. He also said he held a Ph.D. and an L.L.D. and was licensed in Illinois. He claimed he had written a book on Parliamentary Law, and indeed, there was a book by a J. W. Farr on that topic. (None could be located by your author.) He barged his way into teaching at the improbably named U. S. Grant University (which later became the University of Chattanooga and is now UT-Chattanooga) and set himself up as dean of the law program.

Things did not go well for Professor Farr. Within a few months, his true nature became apparent. Farr was trafficking in degrees. In one documented instance, he approached a student and negotiated the sale of a degree for 150 dollars.[7] The local bar was outraged. Lawyer Thomas B. Cooke was among a party of lawyers who cornered a perspiring Farr on the top floor of the Temple Court building and, “advised him very earnestly that it was better for his health” to leave town in twenty-four hours.”[8]

In 1899, Professor Farr moved to Nashville, where he established his own “National College Law School.” It was located in a building at 500 Church Street with large gold letters on the windows. Farr blanketed the nation with a slick brochure offering a variety of earned or honorary degrees such as L.L.M., LL.D., and even a D.D.S. Some were merely for sale, others were offered by correspondence, others by in-person instruction. Honorary degrees were a modest ten dollars (“an incidental fee”) but actual degrees ranged from twenty-five to fifty dollars. The brochure made it clear that the actual law degrees allowed the holder to practice “in all the courts of law and equity in Tennessee.”[9]

Even Among Complaints, Farr’s ‘Law School’ Flourished

Complaints poured in to the Tennessee Bar Association from as far away as Montana. The TBA went to court — the first time it had done so — and got a chancery court order revoking Farr’s “National College Law School,” which was all it sought. Farr simply changed the name of his school to “Nashville College of Law” and continued his scheme. He now operated out of Nashville and Washington, DC, toggling back and forth. Articles complaining about his degree-selling appeared in the American Law Review and the Albany Law Journal. One speculated that he must have given fake degrees to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Farr lured students to the school using the time-honored method of free tuition. “This office has been duly notified of your appointment to one of the free law scholarships of this College,” his letter informed recipients. Enclosed with the letter was a brochure, boldly proclaiming “Ignorance of the Law Excuses No One” and stating, “College Course, L.L.B. — Diploma Admits to the Bar.” For the handful of students who actually showed up, Farr had a special offer. Simply pay him (variously $50 or $150) and he would hand them a diploma.

An ‘Ignorant Tyro, Charlatan and Fakir’

Meanwhile, Farr’s Chattanooga sojourn had caused a committee of well-regarded lawyers there — A. A. Champion, A. W. Chambliss, Ed T. Seay, and William L. Frierson (later Solicitor General of the United States) to publicly call Farr “an ignorant tyro, charlatan and fakir” in 1900.[10]

A five-member TBA special committee was formed to lobby the legislature for a written bar exam and repeal of the diploma privilege. It was composed of the dean at Vanderbilt, Thomas H. Malone; the dean at the University of Tennessee, H. H. Ingersoll; Nashville judge John W. Judd; Nashville lawyer John S. Pilcher; and John H. Malone, who would later serve as TBA president. Known as a law reformer, Malone had championed the need for a new state constitution as early as 1893.

The special committee and the TBA Legal Education Committee were stunned when “the head of one of the leading law schools in this State appeared before the Judiciary Committee of the 1901 General Assembly, which was at that time considering the [written bar exam] bill, and made a vigorous attack on it.”[11] Who was the attacker?

It was Nathan Green Jr., chancellor of Cumberland University (1873-1903). His only concern was the famous one-year program, from which he benefited richly. One of Cumberland’s first graduates, Green had been teaching there since 1856. Except for the Civil War years, he continued to teach until his death in 1919 at the age of 92. He had been named dean of the Law School in 1893. Dean Green, son of a Tennessee Supreme Court justice (Nathan Green, Sr.) and father of another (Grafton Green) was a vigorous defender of Cumberland Law School. His history of (and tribute) to the school had been published in the leading lawyers’ journal, The Green Bag.[12]

The evil at which the repeal statute was directed was not present at Cumberland, argued Green. Its rigorous course of “daily examinations” (recitations) and the growing ranks of illustrious alumni were evidence of quality education. The swollen enrollment figures indicated a healthy school, too. From 1890 to 1900, Cumberland enrollments always equaled the total of all other law schools in the state combined. For several years, Cumberland doubled the combined enrollment of Vanderbilt and UT, which both required at least two years of law study.) The two TBA committees knew the task before them — they had to go around Green and appeal to Cumberland alumni. They also put a member of the General Assembly judiciary committee on the special committee.

The Press Gets Involved

Meanwhile, Nashville’s leading newspaper, Daily American, started a series of articles that ridiculed Farr and his school. It reported he had offered a window sign painter a law degree for some work. One of the school’s degree holders was “L. D. Armstrong,” shown to be Farr’s landlady. Farr had been sued successfully by a disgruntled former faculty member. Farr’s written responses in the paper charged jealousy (a favorite word). Farr’s school(s) had taught about 500 men and women, of whom 162 were practicing law somewhere, he wrote.[13]

The Long Road to a Written Bar Exam

The well-armed Tennessee Bar Association leadership descended upon the General Assembly in 1903. They knew what they wanted: a written bar exam and repeal of the diploma privilege. Their remedy was called “The Board Bill” because it called for a Board of Law Examiners.

TBA officers and the two committee members worked intensely and the names of the more effective lobbyists are worth mentioning. President R. E. L. Mountcastle of Morristown and Secretary-Treasurer Robert Lusk of Nashville (both former members of the Legal Education Committee) worked the legislative halls. A freshman representative, Thomas N. Greer (1875-1932) was instrumental. He was mentioned by name in the new Board of Law Examiners’ first annual report.[14] A member of the Judiciary Committee and a TBA member, Greer displayed the skills that were later to earn him the title “The Colonel House of Democratic Politics.”[15] Greer, educated in law at George Washington University, became one of the state’s leading public utility lawyers.

Other well-known reformers supported the new law. Joseph H. Acklen (1850-1915) was an influential Nashville bar and social leader, and the eldest son of the Mistress of Belmont — Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham. He supported the bill in earnest, as he had most other reform issues, suffrage and constitutional revision. Other oarsmen were Douglas Wilkes and W. G. M. Thomas, and the peripatetic James H. Malone.[16]

The legal educators were the most active of all. In the vanguard were deans Ingersoll and Malone. But the most energetic was William B. Swaney (1858-1940) who, with William F. Frierson, was a founding faculty member of the Chattanooga College of Law (1910), the state’s first evening law school. He taught at the school for forty years. He had received a B.S. from UT in 1878, studied in a law office and had graduated from Cumberland in 1881. He established a large practice representing insurance companies and the Southern Railway. Swaney was a special supreme court judge during 1917 and was a productive scholar writing books and articles on corporate and tax law.

One of the more interesting actors in the drama was a Nashville lawyer who taught corporate law part-time at Vanderbilt. James Clark McReynolds (1862-1946) had been awarded the Founder’s Medal as the top scholar in Vanderbilt (1882) and later earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. The handsome aristocratic McReynolds was one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. He had run for Congress in 1896 and was active in the Anti-Saloon League. His lobbying for the Board bill was one of his last acts on behalf of Tennessee reform. On April 30, 1903 he was appointed an assistant attorney general of the United States. He never returned to the state to live, and in 1914 was appointed to the United States Supreme Court. (Sadly, he is considered a failure as a justice.)

The Board bill finally passed in 1903, exactly 20 years after it had been first urged by the TBA. Enacted on March 30, the bill established a centralized licensing scheme not unlike those of other states (notably New York), a scheme which with only modest changes governs bar admission to this day.[17]

Licensing was vested in a three-member board appointed by the supreme court. The Board administers the rules of the court regarding the admission of persons to the bar, including “rules providing for a uniform system of examinations.”[18] No educational requirements were mandated in the statute or the rules. (Those would come in later decades.)

Two TBA members, A. S. Champion of Nashville and Robert Burrow of Johnson City, were appointed to the Board. Both were members of the TBA Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar. The 1903 bar examination was given late in the year, so only thirty-one applicants were tested. Five of these were black, and immediately it became clear that blacks in disproportionate numbers were unable to pass the examination. A passing score was set at 75 percent, but a notable black applicant could manage only 40 percent. The Board explained why: the failing applicants had not attended law school. Seemingly, no overt discrimination was practiced against the black applicants (the original bill stated that race was not a grounds for being excluded from the exam, but this language did not appear in the final version.)

In 1904, 88 applicants were tested and fifteen failed. The law school educated had the edge. “We find that it is a great advantage to a young man to attend a law school. We have a great many applicants from law offices who seem never to have studied law very much, but have absorbed it from being around courts,” said the Board.[19] Apparently, this was the reason blacks were not passing the test. The Board’s report said it “hoped and still hopes” that black applicants “will come up to the grade.” Certainly blacks alone did not fail. One of the worst takers was a prominent justice of the peace who didn’t use a “capital or punctuation point from beginning to the end of the examination papers.”

The bar examination, taking two days, consisted of five short questions on about fifteen subjects. The applicant was given five questions at a time, which he pasted on legal size paper, writing the answer immediately underneath. The completed questions were read by a single board member who passed “doubtful” or “failing” tests to his colleagues for their consideration.

By 1906, the influence of the written bar exam proved to be dramatic. Seventy-five percent of the examinees were law school graduates, and “Those who have little other qualifications than that of having served a term as sheriff, clerk, justice of the peace, no longer apply.” That year, 118 were examined and all but 13 passed.[20]

Well known is the struggle by Marion Scudder Griffin to take the new written bar exam; she had to convince the General Assembly to make clear that women could sit for the exam after the supreme court refused her petition because she was a woman in 1901.[21] Few understood that she had a law degree from the University of Michigan (1906), where she had served on the law review, and was already admitted in federal court. Two other women took the exam at the same time, June 12, 1907. They were Miss Frances Wolf and an unknown black woman.[22]

The Board has never kept data identifying African-Americans who pass the exam. It is known that Josiah T. Settle, Jr. passed in 1915; he was the son of a leading black Memphis lawyer with the same name. In 1909, Miss Eleanor Coonrod of Chattanooga became the first woman member of the TBA, although she was later booted for failure to remit dues entrusted to her. By then, the name of William Farr was already a footnote in Tennessee legal history. What had happened to him?

An October 1903 document instructing the U.S. Marshal to bring William Farr to court for “using the mails of the United States to defraud various parties.”
An October 1903 document instructing the U.S. Marshal to bring William Farr
to court for “using the mails of the United States to defraud various parties.”

What Happened to J. William Farr?

On Oct. 22, 1903, J. William Farr had been indicted by a federal grand jury for mail fraud. He had decamped for Washington, D.C., where he was busy “establishing” at least one more college which remarkably, exists to the present day: George Washington University Law School! (This was the nation’s first law school to officially admit women from the first.)

After considerable legal wrangling, Farr was finally returned by U. S. marshals and tried in Nashville on April 25, 1905. By then, the written bar exam had been established and the diploma privilege was abolished. Farr was represented by a dream team of four criminal lawyers, S. D. Covington, Col. Tip Gamble, Gen. W. G. Brien (Vanderbilt, Class of 1877) and Charles Rutherford. None was a graduate of Farr’s school.

Specific fraud was found in Farr’s announcements, which listed certain of his alumni as officers of the school; this was shown to be untrue. The court record in the chancery annulment proceeding was used against him.[23]

A few former residential students disputed the number of other students in residence. They said the teaching was spotty and that Farr wanted to give them their degrees prematurely, for money. Although he charged no tuition, he charged for examinations ($5) and a diploma would be given after a certain number was passed.

John William Farr — or whatever his name was — took the stand on April 26, 1905. It was 10 a.m. and he was not excused until 11 that night. His answers were roundabout and evasive. The primary problem, he explained, was he did not have the documents with him to prove the legitimacy of the school. One key piece of evidence emerged. The school(s) had 608 “graduates” but testimony was not clear how many were lawyers.[24]

Farr was convicted of one count of a two-count indictment. This was a felony, with a $500 fine and a potential of six months prison time.

Federal judge J. C. Clark sentenced Farr to a four-month suspended sentence. Upon an indigency affidavit he was fined $50 provided he give an affidavit that he would not operate any more schools. Farr complied and left town.


The written bar exam is a central fact of legal life in Tennessee. It has withstood several challenges that it is not fair to the learning disabled, or just not fair at all. Until 1968, so few African-Americans passed that it became an article of faith in the black community that the white bar only allowed one black person to pass each year. This was not true. Sometimes as many as three passed, if they had graduated from a reputable law school. There was a bar exam cheating scandal in the late 1940s — a discussion of that will await a later article.

And Professor Farr? A diligent and expensive computer search of Census and business records has failed to uncover the later whereabouts of J. William Farr. Was even his name a fraud?


  1. Report of the Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, 1900 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 11.
  2. Chap. 73 [Tenn. Pub. Acts] 56.
  3. J. Guild, Old Times in Tennessee (1878) 78-80.
  4. Edward T. Sanford, Address to the Tennessee Bar Association, annual meeting, June 1923. (Manuscript in the Sanford Collection, University of Tennessee at Knoxville Library.)
  5. C. Hull, Memoirs, vol. 1 (1948) 27. Hull asserted that everyone except Cumberland graduates had to be 21 years old.
  6. Harriman was a planned community in the 1890’s and boasted that it did not allow black people to settle there. The word “neophogen” means “new light” in Greek. The school lasted only six years but one of its graduates was the famous writer Opie Read. W. Durham, A College for This Community (1974) 55.
  7. G. Govan and J. Livingood, The University of Chattanooga, Sixty Years (1947) 88.
  8. Remarks of T. B. Cooke, 1904 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 94. The date this happened is not clear, but was sometime in 1896-1898.
  9. Report of the Committee on Grievances, 1903 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 39.
  10. Report of the Committee to Report on the Nashville College Law School, 1900 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 84.
  11. Report of the Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, 1901 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 20.
  12. Nathan Green, Jr., The Law School of Cumberland University, 2 Green Bag (1910) 63.
  13. College’s Home Now for Rent, Daily American, August 22, 1902.
  14. Report of the State Board of Law Examiners, 1903 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 16
  15. P. Hamer, 4 Tennessee, A History, 1673-1932 (1933) 725.
  16. Report of the State Board of Law Examiners, 1903 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 16.
  17. Chap. 247 [1903] Tenn. Pub. Acts 575. The Senate’s final vote was 27 to 3; the House vote was 58 to 33.
  18. Report of the State Board of Law Examiners, 1903 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 15, 16.
  19. Report of the State Board of Law Examiners, 1904 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 80, 81, 84.
  20. Report of the Board of Law Examiners, 1905 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 21; Report of the Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, 1906 Tenn. B. Ass’n Proc. 41,
  21. Ex Parte Griffin, 71 S.W. 746 (Tenn. 1901).
  22. Ladies Will Take Law Exams Today, Daily American, June 12, 1907.
  23. Professor Farr in the Toils, Daily American, April 26, 1905; “Prof” Farr on the Stand, Nashville Banner, April 26, 1905.
  24. Farr Gets Hot Shots, Nashville Banner, April 27, 1905; Argument in Farr Case, April 27, 1905; Farr’s Methods Fraudulent, Nashville Banner, April 28, 1905.

Nashville lawyer LEWIS L. LASKA is professor of business law emeritus for the College of Business at Tennessee State University and has practiced law since 1973 . A graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Law, his articles have appeared in the Tennessee Bar Journal over a span of more than 40 years.

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