852 Rare: The Brief, “A Clever Bit of Legal Jesting”

Don’t ever let someone tell you that law students don’t have a sense of humor… there is plenty of evidence in Historical & Special Collections (HSC) that proves otherwise! A recent discovery in the stacks turned up a quirky and irreverent periodical written by Harvard Law students in the early 20th century.

The Brief, also titled The Yellow Brief and Expurgated! The Yellow Brief, was a short-lived publication that poked fun at the culture of Harvard Law School, its students, and its faculty. It was described in 1902 by The Green Bag: An Entertaining Magazine for Lawyers as a “clever bit of legal jesting.”[1] The Green Bag still exists today and can be found online and is responsible for creating the Supreme Court bobbleheads, several of which are held  by Historical & Special Collections.

The format of The Brief often parodies law reviews, beginning with a list of the contents of each issue variously labeled “Contents,” and “Contempts,” and punctuated by non-sequential page numbers (or the same page number used on every page), witty poems and verses, and occasional explanations of legal terms and maxims. Anything from casebooks to classes to exams seem to be ready targets for witty criticism by The Brief.

Examination Rules printed in "The Brief"
Image 444: “The Brief,” Volumes 1, No. 1, pg. 444, HOLLIS 3887862
Legal Terms and Maxims in "The Brief"
Image 444: “The Brief,” Act V, Scene 1, pg. 24, HOLLIS 3887862.








Professor Beale, who taught at the Law School from 1892 to 1938, seems to have been one of several faculty targets of The Brief. The December 1905 issue, which is numbered “Act V, Scene I,” contains several endorsements from The Brief for Professor Beale’s candidacy for alderman. While it is safe to assume that Professor Beale did not entertain a run for alderman, we’re quite certain he must have been aware of The Brief. One of the May 1902 issues held by HSC has Professor Beale’s name at the top, so he was most likely the owner of this particular copy.

"The Brief" endorsements for Mr. Beale for alderman
Image 444: “The Brief,” Act V, scene 1, HOLLIS 3887862

Another interesting discovery about The Brief is that Volume 2, number 1 (1905) is printed on esparto grass paper. Esparto grass, native to southern Spain and northern Africa, has been used for centuries to make rope, sandals, baskets, and many other objects. As you can see from the pictures below, this paper is quite unlike that used for other editions. The paper adds yet another unusual quality to this publication. This issue was written in the form of a letter to keep the recipient up to date with daily activities at HLS.

We can only hope that today’s HLS students keep some humor and wit at the ready as the school year begins!

Example of "The Brief" printed on esparto grass paper.
Image 444: “The Brief,” Volume 2, number 1, HOLLIS 4050416
Example of "The Brief" printed on esparto grass paper.
Image 444: “The Brief,” Volume 2, number 1, HOLLIS 4050416

[1] The Green Bag, vol. 14 (1902), pg. 297

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