In 1970, BYU President and former attorney Ernest L. Wilkinson suggested to leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the creation of a law school, and in March 1971, Harold B. Lee announced that one would be established at BYU in the coming years. In November 1971, Rex E. Lee, who would later become president of BYU, was named the first dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School. Ground was broken for the law school building in May 1973.
Classes began in the fall of 1973 and were held in the nearby St. Francis of Assisi School, which the law school leased in 1972 after the Catholic school there was discontinued. Law students attended classes in St. Francis of Assisi until the J. Reuben Clark Building’s completion and dedication in 1975. The first class graduated in 1976.
The school’s namesake, J. Reuben Clark Jr., studied law at Columbia University and was made Assistant Solicitor to the State Department in 1906 under Theodore Roosevelt. He became Solicitor to the State Department in 1910 under William Howard Taft. Clark was appointed Ambassador to Mexico in 1930 by Calvin Coolidge, a position he held until 1933 when he was sustained as second counselor to President Heber J. Grant in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In BYU President Dallin H. Oaks’ opening remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony, he said: “The life of J. Reuben Clark exemplifies the excellence of mind and character we seek to foster in the law school that now bears his name. Every person—and especially every young student of the law—can identify with the life of this great man and appropriately aspire to the greatness he attained.”
The BYU Law Library remained nameless until 1995, when it was dubbed the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at the groundbreaking for renovations that would double the library’s size. Hunter, a member of the BYU Board of Trustees, approved the creation of the school, participated in the selection of the first dean, and helped with fundraising efforts for the school. In 1989 the Howard W. Hunter Professorship was established in his honor. Hunter himself was a lawyer; he had studied at Southwestern University in Los Angeles, graduated cum laude, and had run his own practice for 19 years before entering full-time Church service.
President Oaks said of the purpose of the school: “Religious commitment, religious values, and concern with ethics and morality are part of the reason for this school’s existence, and will be in the atmosphere of its study.” At the dedication of the law building in 1975, Oaks and others expressed dismay at the negative perception of lawyers’ moral standards. Most speakers expressed hope for BYU’s law students in developing strong ethics and character through studying the laws of man “in the light of the laws of God.”