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BY JESSICA TOMER
New England Law, Immigrants, and Inclusiveness
Members of the Portia Law School Menorah Society, 1939

Boston, 1908.

Despite an industrial and economic boom—or perhaps because of it—the city remains deeply intolerant and segregated along economic, racial, and cultural lines.

Women, people of color, and many immigrant populations are considered second-class citizens.

The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, won’t be passed for another twelve years.

It was in this world that Portia Law School was born.

Founded as the only law school in the country exclusively for women, Portia Law School offered a legal education to women at a time when most other institutions would not accept them at all. The school also opened its doors to immigrants, minorities, and others when it was not socially acceptable to do so.

That commitment to an accessible legal education has been a hallmark of the school—now New England Law | Boston—ever since…

Revolutionary beginning

A firm believer in making law accessible to all, Arthur W. MacLean, a lawyer, began his career in legal education teaching the sons of working men and immigrants. In 1908, when two women asked to be prepared for the bar exam, he tutored them independently. More followed, and by 1918, 91 women were enrolled and he incorporated the school.

The decades around Portia’s founding saw an industrial and economic boom in Boston, spurred by new manufacturing and infrastructure growth. In turn, this led to an influx of immigrants (many fleeing economically depressed European countries) seeking opportunities in the burgeoning American city. In fact, Boston’s population more than doubled between 1880 and 1920—and immigrants comprised nearly 40 percent of that growth. Boston’s storied Irish population was its largest immigrant community, though significant numbers of immigrants came to the city from Canada, Russia, and Italy, as well as smaller numbers from other countries, such as China and Poland.

From building railroads to serving as domestic servants to working in factories making everything from textiles to candy, immigrants worked under harsh conditions for low pay in the hopes of joining America’s middle class.

Portia Law School welcomed many of these individuals and their families.

Welcoming “undesirables”

The early Portia Law School students were primarily from working-class and immigrant families and many had only a high school education, since the state did not require a college degree to study law. (For decades, most of the women who passed the Massachusetts bar examination were Portia graduates!)

These women often developed an interest in the law and came to Portia Law School hoping to support their families (often their husbands or fathers) with their own legal needs. When not in class, many worked low-wage jobs or stayed at home with their children. Given this student body, the school was sensitive to financial and time pressures and offered part-time enrollment.

Portia Law School was also unique in admitting women from what were then “undesirable” European countries, such as Italian immigrants Mildred Salerno and Letitia Paraboschi from the Class of 1933. Many Jewish students—often ostracized as a religious minority—attended the school as well; in 1919, a group of Jewish students founded the Portia Menorah Society. And in yet another example of the many ways the school opened its doors to different populations, Francesco Princiotta, a veteran and 1945 graduate of Portia’s partner school, Calvin Coolidge College, was one of the nation’s first GI Bill® recipients to earn a degree. 

In addition to having a socioeconomically diverse student body, Portia Law School welcomed students of all races and ethnicities as well, with African American women attending the school from its earliest days. Portia students Blanche Braxton ’21 and Dorothy Crockett ’31 were both pioneers in their own right and in their own states. In 1923, Braxton was the first African American woman admitted to the Massachusetts bar; in 1932, Crockett was the first woman admitted in Rhode Island. (In fact, Roger Williams University recently honored Crockett by dedicating a classroom to her.)

Continuing the tradition

Today, New England Law builds on its founding principles of accessibility, diversity, and inclusion, with a student body that is about 30 percent students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, students represent diversity across many spectrums: socioeconomic, sexual and gender identity, age, geographic, and more. (To say nothing of their varied legal interests!)

The school also attracts students looking to help those disenfranchised by racism, sexism, and other prejudices. Even as law students, they help refugees and asylum seekers through the school’s Human Rights and Immigration Law Project. They serve immigrants and families with the Immigration Law Certificate Program. And they support indigent clients through the Public Interest Law Clinic. And much more.

Over the past century, students have carried on the school’s legacy, and New England Law | Boston has striven to stay true to its roots—committed to offering an excellent legal education to anyone with the drive, determination, and desire to become a lawyer.

Jessica Tomer is the Web Content Manager at New England Law | Boston. 

Learn more about the history and diversity of our law school.