Is Legal Education Stuck in 1900s?

Christopher Columbus Langdell. Source: Wikipedia

A common beef law students have with legal education is how ineffective it is in preparing them for practicing law.

Once you start pursuing law, your friends and family often look to you for the “law” on everyday issues.  However, while they think that you would have the answer at your fingertips, the end result is often you smartly evading the question, or quickly googling an answer (you are a lawyer after all).

A lot of how legal education is can be traced to Prof. Christopher Langdell, who was the Dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895. He conceptualized the ‘case method’, which relied heavily on case laws to study the principles of any subject.

As per the Harvard Law School website.

Langdell conceived of a way to systematize and simplify legal education by focusing on previous case law that furthered principles or doctrines. To that end, Langdell wrote the first casebook, entitled A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts, a collection of settled cases that would illuminate the current state of contract law. Students read the cases and came prepared to analyze them during Socratic question-and-answer sessions in class.

An article written on him talks about the rationale behind this:

His dominant purpose seemed to be to bring out not only the decision of each case but the reason for the decision. Students soon learned that any position they might advance was pretty soon to be followed by the question, “Could you suggest a reason?

Although some say that this method was used before Prof Langdell’s time, he is largely credited for its popularity.

Impact of the Case Method

This method is followed in Indian law schools at large. In the first few years were inundated with case laws, and later have a few (but not many) subjects, such as Clinic, which deal with the practical aspects of the law.

To quote Wikipedia:

the standard first-year curriculum at all American law schools — Contracts, Property, Torts, Criminal Law, and Civil Procedure — stands, mostly unchanged, from the curriculum Langdell instituted.

The case method has been adopted by various other disciplines as well. For instance, Harvard Business School also uses this method, where they replace case laws with real-life business examples to study the problems of business managers and how they navigated through them.

Time for a change?

Even though the case law method is useful, it has certain drawbacks as well. It’s been argued that excessive reliance on cases often takes away from the practical aspects of lawyering. Introduction of subjects like Clinic, where students are made to draft actual documents, helps students get a grasp of the practical aspects. However, it isn’t done enough. The teaching seems to be hinged on knowing the ratio of the case more than the reasoning and its application.

The Law Commission of India in its 184th Report also talks about how a shift needs to made be from a ‘case law’ approach to a ‘problem solving’ approach. Even though this report was published in 2002, a lot hasn’t changed since then.

Let us know in the comments what your experience has been learning law, and what you would like to change.

If you wish to write for us, or have a story to share, get in touch at umang.poddar@lawctopus.com

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