On November 23, 1840, the Board of Visitors selected Nathaniel Pope Howard to replace Law Professor John A. G. Davis, shot and killed by a student two weeks earlier. A Richmond native, Howard grew up around lawyers. His father, Thomas C. Howard, was Clerk of the Hustings Court. As a boy, Howard spent time in his father’s office, where he met his future mentor, Conway Robinson, then his father’s deputy clerk. He entered Hampden Sidney College in 1825 and earned an A.B. in 1828. Upon graduation, Howard returned to Richmond to begin his legal career as an apprentice to Robinson, who later wrote that Howard greatly assisted him in his publications The Practice in the Courts of Law and Equity in Virginia (1832-1839) and The Principles and Practice of Courts of Justice in England and the United States (1854). When he completed his apprenticeship, he became deputy clerk under his father, and succeeded his father upon his death in 1834. Howard served as Clerk of the Hustings Court until 1836, when he left to establish a private practice in Richmond.
When Howard was recruited by the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia in 1840, he received a warm send-off by the Richmond Enquirer. On November 27, 1840, the paper declared: “The modesty of Mr. Howard; the seclusion, which is incident to his laborious habits of study, have in part veiled his merits from the public eye. But the prominent station which he is about to assume, will bring out his character in bold relief.” However, Howard and the Board of Visitors had mutually agreed that Howard would only teach until the end of the academic year. Henry St. George Tucker replaced him.
During Howard's short tenure, the University began awarding graduates in the School of Law, a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.). Howard signed the first University diplomas with LL.B. degrees in 1841. The LL.B. remained in place until 1970 when the school conferred, in its place, the J.D.
Howard returned to his private practice in July 1841. Shortly thereafter, Judge John Robertson offered Howard a position as Clerk of the Richmond Superior Court of Chancery, which he accepted. He also served as the Clerk of the Virginia General Court. In 1851, the Virginia General Assembly established a new circuit court system, and Howard’s two positions were dissolved. He then transitioned back to private practice.
From 1850 to the end of the Civil War, U.S. Census Slave Schedules indicate that Howard enslaved at least seven men, women, and children and employed them in various capacities. In 1850, Howard enslaved one 55-year-old man, two women ages 45 and 53, and two girls ages 8 and 10. In 1860, Howard enslaved one 45-year-old woman, whom he rented out to W.W. Snead, a Richmond locksmith. In an 1867 advertisement in the Richmond Dispatch, Snead sought a “middle-aged woman […] to wait on a small family and to cook, wash, and iron.” It is possible that the woman Howard rented out to Snead in 1860 performed that same work.
While Howard maintained his private practice, he received multiple nominations for various judgeships, from Judge of the Hustings Court to Army Judge for the Confederacy. There is no record that he accepted any of these nominations. By 1870, he had formed a partnership with Powhatan Roberts, another Richmond lawyer, to form Howard & Roberts. Howard and Roberts were presenting a case at the Richmond Capitol building on April 27, 1870 when they, along with 62 other individuals, died in the collapse of the second floor onto the first. His sudden and tragic death encouraged his colleagues to publish solemn remarks which reveal their admiration of his character. In a May 1870 article of the Richmond Dispatch, members of the Virginia Bar published this statement: “In the death of N. P. Howard we deplore the loss of one whose life had been devoted with tireless energy to the study of the great principle of law.”