He graduated from Yale College in 1781, having helped establish the Phi Beta Kappa Society there in 1780, and began to practice law at Poughkeepsie, New York in 1785 as an attorney, and in 1787 at the bar. In 1791 and 1792-93 Kent was a member from Dutchess County of the New York State Assembly. In 1793, he removed to New York City, where he was appointed a master in chancery for the city.
He was the first professor of law in Columbia College in 1793-98 and again served in the Assembly in 1796-97. In 1797, he was appointed Recorder of New York City and in 1798, a justice of the New York Supreme Court, in 1804 Chief Justice, and in 1814 Chancellor of New York. In 1821 he was a member of the New York State Constitutional Convention where he unsuccessfully opposed the raising of the property qualification for African American voters. Two years later, Chancellor Kent reached the constitutional age limit and retired from his office, but was re-elected to his former chair. He lived in retirement in Summit, New Jersey between 1837 and 1847 in a simple four-roomed cottage (the original cottage today has been incorporated into a large mansion at 50 Kent Place Boulevard in Summit NJ) which he referred to as 'my Summit Lodge', a name that has been offered as the derivation for the city's name.
He has been long remembered for his Commentaries on American Law (four volumes, published 1826-1830), highly respected in England and America. The Commentaries treated both state, federal and international law, and the law of personal rights and of property, and went through six editions in Kent's lifetime.
Kent rendered his most essential service to American jurisprudence while serving as chancellor. Chancery, or equity law, had been very unpopular during the colonial period, and had received little development, and no decisions had been published. His judgments of this class cover a wide range of topics, and are so thoroughly considered and developed as unquestionably to form the basis of American equity jurisprudence.
He married Elizabeth Bailey, and they had four children: Elizabeth (died in infancy), Elizabeth, Mary, and William Kent (1802–1861) who was a circuit judge and ran for Lieutenant Governor of New York with Washington Hunt in 1852.
Monuments and memorials 
- Kent County, Michigan and Kent City, Michigan are named in his honor, probably because he represented Michigan Territory in its dispute with Ohio over the Toledo Strip.
- Chicago-Kent College of Law is named in his honor.
- The Chancellor Kent Professorship at Columbia Law School is named after him, as is Kent Hall, which was built for the law school, but which now contains Columbia's departments of East Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures along with its East Asian library. Students who have high honors status (generally those who are in the top eight percent of the class) during any one of their years at Columbia Law School are called James Kent Scholars in honor of James Kent's status as Columbia's first professor of law.
- The Chancellor Kent Professorship at Yale Law School is also named after him.
- Kent Place School, an independent all-girls school in New Jersey, is located where his summer house was.
- James Kent's original 'Summit Lodge' is now incorporated into a large mansion at 50 Kent Place Boulevard, Summit, NJ. Most of the original architecture including the kitchen and long room still exist today.
- Bronze statutes of Chancellor Kent and Solon (the Athenian lawmaker whose reforms laid the foundations for democracy) represent law on the balustrade of the galleries of the Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. These statues are among sixteen representing men whose works have shaped human development and civilization.
- Fredericksburg comprised at that time the present-day towns of Patterson, Kent, Carmel, Southeast and Pawling
-  Court History
- Cheslow, Jerry. "A Transit Hub With a Thriving Downtown", The New York Times, July 13, 1997. Accessed January 28, 2008. "THE name Summit may have been coined by James Kent, retired Chancellor of the Court of Chancery, New York State's highest judicial office, who bought a house on the hill in 1837 and named it Summit Lodge."
- Kent, James (1826). Commentaries on American Law 1. New York: O.Halsted., volume 2
- Kent, James (1848). Commentaries on American Law 1. New York: W.Kent., volume 2, volume 3, volume 4 at Internet Archive
- "Bibliography on Kent County". Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
-  Columbia Law School, Grading and Honors at Columbia Law School
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
-  Political Graveyard
- Google Book The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1849 (his obit on page 326, Charles C. Little & James Brown, Boston, 1848)
- The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York: Commentaries on Chancellor Kent
- James Kent: Commentaries on American Law
- "Autobiographical Sketch of James Kent," Southern Law Review, 1872, pp. 381-91. (PDF)
Further reading 
- Duer, John, Discourse on the Life, Character, and Public Services of James Kent, New York, 1848.
|Recorder of New York City
1797 - 1798
|Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court
1804 - 1814
John Lansing, Jr.
|Chancellor of New York
1814 - 1823