Walter Davis Dabney was born in Albemarle County, Virginia at the old homestead, “Dunlora,” in 1853, where his father was a prominent planter. His elder brother, William C. Dabney, was Professor of Medicine at UVA before he died in 1893. He entered UVA in 1871 with the intention of becoming a civil engineer, and he studied in that field for one year. He then left UVA for two years to teach at the Hanover Institute. Dabney graduated from the University of Virginia with a Bachelor of Law degree in 1875 and was admitted to the Virginia Bar. Prior to becoming a professor at UVA Law, he practiced law in Charlottesville for several years and was elected to the House of Delegates. As a member of the House, he served as the Chairman of the Commission on Railroads, and Chairman of the Committee on Finance. He was also a member of the state commission that settled the public debt. After Dabney authored a book on governmental regulation of railways, the Federal Interstate Commission offered him an appointment as its legal secretary, where he served from 1891-93. There he conducted cases in various federal districts and circuit courts. He then became solicitor of the Secretary of State in the Cleveland administration from 1893 to 1895 before resigning to become a professor of law at UVA.
Walter Dabney was elected professor of common and statute law for a one-year term in 1895 to succeed John B. Minor. The following year he was given tenure as a professor of law. He taught courses such as contracts, torts, equity and evidence, and common carriers. Dabney soon became a well-respected member of the university community, joining the Committee on Restoration of the Rotunda and becoming President of the General Athletic Association from 1895-96. In History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919, Philip Bruce writes, “It was said of Dabney that he possessed a peculiarly clear and logical mind, with a very happy faculty for imparting the great fund of professional knowledge which he had accumulated. In addition to this knowledge, he had acquired an unusual degree of literary culture.” Dabney died in 1899.