Friday, October 12, 2012

Christopher Columbus . . . Langdell!

Most people who mark Columbus Day think of Christopher Columbus, the entrepreneur, explorer, and exploiter whose trips to the Americas began a wave of European conquest and settlement that dramatically changed the world. (South Dakota has made the second Monday in October, the federal Columbus Day, Native Americans' Day. S.D. Codified Laws § 1-5-1.2. Washington State recognizes October 12 as Columbus Day, but it is not a legal holiday. RCW 1.16.050.)

Christopher Columbus Langdell. Source: Harvard Law Bulletin
But we're at a law school, so let's think about his namesake, Christopher Columbus Langdell, the dean of Harvard Law School in the late 19th century who dramatically changed legal education. 

Before his time, most people studied law in law offices; those who attended law school sat and listened to professors deliver lectures. Langell introduced the case method and the Socratic approach. He also standardized the curriculum. According to Daniel Coquillette, who is working on a history of Harvard Law School, Langdell saw many of his innovations "as a way of creating a legal elite based on merit, rather than power and influence." Langdell’s methods were so unpopular at first that many students left Harvard to enroll at Boston University Law School.

You can browse Langdell's 1871 Contracts casebook on HeinOnline. (If you're off campus, be sure to go through the off-campus access link first.) Sure, it's over 140 years old so it doesn't have the latest cases, but its structure will probably seem familiar to you.

Title page, A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts. Source: HeinOnline.

Here are some excerpts from Langdell's preface, in which he explains his thinking:

I cannot better explain the design of this volume than by stating the circumstances which led me to undertake its preparation.

I [began teaching] with a settled conviction that law could only be taught or learned effectively by means of cases in some form. . . . it was chiefly through my experience as a learner that it was first formed, as well as subsequently strengthened and confirmed. Of teaching indeed, as a business, I was entirely without experience; nor had I given much consideration to that subject, except so far as proper methods of teaching are involved in proper methods of study.

Now . . . I was expected to take a large class of pupils, meet them regularly from day to day, and give them systematic instruction in such branches of law as had been assigned to me. To accomplish this successfully, it was necessary, first, that the efforts of the pupils should go hand in hand with mine, that is, that they should study with direct reference to my instruction; secondly, that the study thus required of them should be of the kind from which they might reap the greatest and most lasting benefit; thirdly, that the instruction should be of such a character that the pupils might at least derive a greater advantage from attending it than from devoting the same time to private study. How could this threefold object be accomplished? Only one mode occurred to me which seemed to hold out any reasonable prospect of success; and that was, to make a series of cases, carefully selected from the books of reports, the subject alike of study and instruction. . . . [T]hough it might be practicable, in case of private pupils having free access to a complete library, to refer them directly to the books of reports, such a course was quite out of the question with a large class, all of whom would want the same books at the same time. . . .
Law, considered as a science, consists of certain principles or doctrines. To have such a mastery of these as to be able to apply them with constant facility and certainty to the ever-tangled skein of human affairs, is what constitutes a true lawyer; and hence to acquire that mastery should be the business of every earnest student of law. . . . [M]uch the shortest and best, if not the only way of mastering the doctrine effectually is by studying the cases in which it is embodied. But the cases which are useful and necessary for this purpose at the present day bear an exceedingly small proportion to all that have been reported. The vast majority are useless and worse than useless for any purpose of systematic study. . . . It seemed to me . . . to be possible to take such a branch of the law as Contracts, for example, and, without exceeding comparatively moderate limits, to select, classify, and arrange all the cases which had contributed in any important degree to the growth, development, or establishment of any of its essential doctrines ; and that such a work could not fail to be of material service to all who desire to study that branch of law systematically and in its original sources. . . .
Legal education has changed since Langdell's time. For instance, access to law school has opened up to women and people of color, and there are many opportunities for experiential learning in clinics and simulation courses. But his mark is still visible, in the classroom, in the curriculum, and in your homework.

Happy Columbus Day, and have a good weekend!

1 comment:

Kate said...

I can only wonder what legal education might look like today if Langdell had not invented his case method. To his credit, he "flipped" the classroom of his day. But his line about how most cases are utterly "useless" reveals a lot about L's conception of law, lawyering, and a proper legal education -- all of which informs or haunts us still.
Thanks, Mary!