The “Lebanon Law School” opened its first term in October 1847 as the first school of law in the Old Southwest. Professor Abraham Caruthers was soon joined by state Supreme Court Justice Nathan Green Sr., his son Nathan Jr., and Bromfield Ridley. By 1859 Cumberland, Harvard, and Virginia were the three largest law schools in the country. The first graduate, Payne Prim, became chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
Caruthers established a new model for legal education. He assailed the old method of lectures, as well as the reading of court cases in law offices. He believed the law was a science, best taught from textbooks by Socratic questioning under the direction of an experienced jurist, with additional experience in Moot court.
In the post-Civil War era, Nathan Green Jr., and Andrew B. Martin served as the principal teachers until their deaths in 1919 and 1920. Other faculty members included W. R. Chambers, Sam Gilreath, Frank Fancher, and Arthur Weeks. In 1871 Cumberland University took the revolutionary step of instituting a one-year law course. The Bachelor of Laws degree was awarded after two semesters of study, examination, Moot court, and debate. Students were taught one subject at a time for the entire three-hour class period. Cumberland University followed this very successful method until 1938-39, when the school returned to a two-year course. Women were admitted in 1901. The school received full accreditation in 1947.
In the foyer of Caruthers Hall, the “Law Barn,” class pictures attest to the quality of the Cumberland education. Among the graduates are governors, senators, state and U.S. Supreme Court justices (Horace Lurton and Howell Jackson), and a secretary of state, Nobel Peace laureate Cordell Hull.
In 1961 the law school was removed to Birmingham, Alabama, under the aegis of Samford University.