My wife is a recent graduate of Drake Law School and I remember during her time there that it was referenced as “the oldest law school west of the Mississippi River” . Earlier this week I saw the same reference to the other law school in the state - The University of Iowa College of Law . To quote The Highlander, “there can be only one” - so what’s the story?
It looks like the first law school established west of the Mississippi River was founded in Des Moines in 1865 by two Iowa Supreme Court Justices, George Grover Wright and Chester Cicero Cole. It was called the “Iowa Law School” and was independent of Drake University (which didn’t yet exist), the University of Iowa or any other institution.
In 1868 the Iowa Law School moved to Iowa City and joined the University of Iowa becoming its law department . Cole, Wright and other faculty continued to teach in the program. It seems this move was prompted by the State’s Board of Regents and never sat quite right with the school’s founders who had existing law practices and believed the law school should have a connection with the Capitol and the state Supreme Court, all of which were in Des Moines.
It came to a head in 1875 when Cole left the University of Iowa and founded a separate institution in Des Moines called the “Iowa College of Law”. That law school was also independent but has a special affiliation to grant its degrees through Simpson College in Indianola .
The Drake University we know today was founded in Des Moines in 1881 and at that time the Iowa College of Law became a part of the institution.
So, if you're paying attention Chester C. Cole, himself a Harvard Law School graduate, is the founder of both of Iowa's law schools.
Back to the original question, who gets the credit?
It depends on how the question is phrased. Who would’ve thought the early years of both of Iowa’s law schools were so intertwined? It’s almost an inverted Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens relationship.
Neither University should be able to claim they established the first law school since the founding work was done independently by the rather industrious Justice Cole and his buddy Justice Wright.
I do think that it’s fair for the University of Iowa claim its the oldest. They retain the legacy and records of the original law school.
I’m fine with Drake claiming that history, too. David Walker, former Drake Law Dean, once wrote that it “traces its roots and purposes to 1865 and the vision and continuing work of two Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court” . So, they retain the spirit of the original law schools founders.
School vs. College: Odd naming trivia note.
The evolution of the names of these two institutions makes tracking the history rather confusing. The one founded as the “Iowa Law School” is now known as the “University of Iowa College of Law” whereas the one founded as the “Iowa College of Law” is now known as the “Drake University Law School”. Flip-floppers.
All links accessed on 1/8/2014
 “From the oldest law school west of the Mississippi to one of only four business schools in the state” - drake.edu
 “We are the oldest law school west of the Mississippi River” - law.uiowa.edu
 “1868 – Law school moves to the University of Iowa.” - law.uiowa.edu
 Bulletin, Volume 7, Issue 1 by Drake University  via Google Books
 THE UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO LAW REVIEW - Volume 40
Photo Credit: uiowa on Flickr