Walkabout: Stenography and the Law in Brooklyn

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Anyone know shorthand? Before computers, before typewriters, shorthand was the way to take dictation and notes for the business community. The word stenography, from the original Greek, where it was first used, means narrow writing, and consists of symbols and abbreviated words that enable a writer to capture speech as fast as it is spoken. Before recording devices, shorthand was vital to businesses, medical communities and the law. A good stenographer could make a decent living, and this skill improved the lives of thousands of men and women. As business became the engine that propelled the economy of the United States, specifically New York City, schools that taught stenography and secretarial practices were invaluable to the public. Charles Pratt, a partner in Standard Oil, and the richest man in Brooklyn in his day, knew that knowledge would further the careers of Brooklynites, and so added stenography and secretarial skills to the courses taught at his Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill. He hired Norman Heffley to run his program, and Heffley would go on to create one of Brooklyn’s finest institutions, Brooklyn Law School.

Norman Heffley had always been interested in stenography, since working as a telegrapher for the Midland Pacific Railroad. He came to NY at the age of twenty-four from Pennsylvania, took a one month steno course, and got a job at West Point Military Academy in 1878. From there, he was employed at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and then took a job with Charles Pratt & Co, a subsidiary of Standard Oil. He collected over 2,500 volumes on ancient stenography, and would give lectures, and wrote articles and books on the history and art of stenography. He displayed his collection and lectured at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. While working for Charles Pratt, he would accompany him on trips abroad, and upon returning from one of those trips, he resigned from the oil company and joined the Pratt Institute in 1889. The Heffley School of Commerce opened in a building adjoining the Pratt campus at 231 Ryerson Street, and was associated with Pratt Institute’s department of commerce, offering courses in stenography, typing, proof reading and other commercial skills.

From the very beginning, the school reached out to help the underprivileged learn a valuable trade, a tradition the greater Pratt Institute itself shared. In 1896, the a Heffley branch of the Pratt Institute Neighbor-ship Association voted to rent an apartment at the Astral, Charles Pratt’s progressive employee housing complex in Greenpoint, to teach free classes to those who were unable to pay tuition. They taught reading, math and secretarial skills. The first Heffley class graduated in 1896, and in 1899 became an independent school, an accredited part of the state university system. They moved nearby into a new building at 243-245 Ryerson Street, and began to offer regents and civil servant’s preparatory classes in addition to their secretarial and business classes.

In 1901, in association with William Payson Richardson, a distinguished legal scholar, Norman Heffley obtained a charter of incorporation for the Brooklyn Law School. While law schools existed long before this, at this time it was still possible to study law the old fashioned way, by apprenticing oneself to a lawyer for a number of years. Brooklyn did not have its own law school, and this was to be the first. The pioneering class of thirteen first-year students and five second-year students met in the basement of the Heffley School. Heffley became president of the Board of Trustees, and William Richardson was named dean. He remained dean until 1945. In order to obtain degree-conferring status for the first class of 1903, the school became affiliated with St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, an affiliation that remained until the mid 1940′s.

The Heffley School would remain strong, and the Law School grew so fast that they quickly moved out of the Ryerson building to classrooms at 187 Montague Street, downtown, in 1902. They soon realized that being downtown near the courts would be invaluable to the success of the school. This building is no longer in existence. By 1904, they had expanded again, and moved to the Brooklyn Eagle Building, now called the Eagle Warehouse, the iconic landmarked Frank Freeman building in DUMBO, where they stayed until 1928.

From the very beginning of the school, the Brooklyn Law School welcomed students regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, making it unique among law schools. Archival photographs in the school’s collections from the early 1900′s show African American students and women among the student body. During the Depression, the school gained a reputation as an institution open to those students who could not afford more elite schools, or those who were denied admission to other institutions because of discrimination. By 1928, their classrooms at the Eagle Building were inadequate, and they would move to their first building built for them, at 375 Pearl Street, called Richardson Hall, now home to the Brooklyn Friends School. It was there, during the 1930′s, that the school began to have evening classes, and their enrollment grew to over 1500. The Law School gained accreditation by the American Bar Association in 1937.

During the late 1930′s, St. Lawrence University decided to close the Law School, due to decreased enrollment due to the Depression and the numbers of male students enlisted in the armed services. The faculty and alumni succeeded in buying the school from the university, and in 1943 the Brooklyn Law School became independent, just in time to welcome back veterans from World War II, dramatically increasing their enrollment yet again. Dean Richardson died in 1945, and the school passed on to a new generation of leaders. The school would move yet again, this time to its new building on Joralemon, designed in 1968 by Praeger-Kavenagh-Waterbury. That building would be joined in 1994 by Robert A.M. Stern’s majestic new building, sandwiched between the 1968 structure and the Municipal Building at 250 Joralemon.

Norman Heffley had died in 1935. Eulogized in the NY Times as a prolific educator and as an expert and innovator in the field of stenography, he died at the age of 81. He’s buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery. He must have looked back towards the end of his life at a career that took him from the confidence and friendship of one of the city’s richest and most powerful men to the establishment of one of Brooklyn’s most important educational institutions, and wondered at it all. His Brooklyn Law School would produce some of the city’s movers and shakers, men and women who might not have been able to transcend economy, race and gender to achieve their goals if it hadn’t been for the open and nonprejudicial policies of the school. Leaders of such varied experiences and fame as Herman Badillo, Bruce Cutler, David Dinkins, Geraldo Rivera, Irving Swifty Lazar, Percy Sutton, billionaire Larry Silverstein, and lyricist and composer Hy Zaret. Not bad for a steno guy.

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  • That was so interesting! I never knew any of that about Brooklyn Law School- which became the bane of my existence when they built the new dormitory. But i had always been under the ipression Frank Gehry built the addition on Joralemon- oh well, wrong again :)

  • very interesting indeed. thank you.
    The Stern building is a very sophisticated work from one of the country’s most sophisticated design firms. We are lucky to have it in our little municipal district.

  • There was a secretary in an old job that would take meeting notes… in SHORTHAND! It was actually really bizarre to me. Not sure why, but it was. Alien script and the odd personality of the secretary may be part of it.

    The Lords Prayer in various forms of shorthand… http://bk.ly/tLi

  • I used to marvel at people who knew shorthand. Their notes looked liked Arabic or ancient Korean.
    It must be a very useful skill if one needs to take notes or minutes of long meetings.

  • would be fun to know what all the historical figures are depicted in the limestone frieze/frame around the entrance to BFS.

    Moses, Hammurabi, Napoleonic Code, founding fathers, Magna Carta and more, but even the school couldn’t tell me which all they were

  • My former legal assistant knows steno, and believe it or not, this knowledge is still in demand, particularly by old-timers that refuse to learn computers, typing, dictaphone or any other “modern” technology.

    She probably even attended this school, since she is a born and bred Brooklynite.