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Christopher Columbus Langdell

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"Mr. Fox, will you state the facts in the case of Payne v. Cave?" That simple question marked the beginning of a revolution in LEGAL EDUCATION. In 1870, Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell, in the first contracts class he taught at Harvard Law School, put the question to a student and forever changed the way lawyers learned their craft. No longer would law students sit passively and take notes while their professor lectured or read out of a legal treatise. Langdell's students read the reports of actual court cases and were required to discuss them in class. Langdell is credited with introducing the case-study method of instruction into U.S. law schools. Although there is evidence that Langdell was not the first to use the CASE METHOD, as dean, he had the opportunity to shape the program of the influential Harvard Law School and in turn the law training programs of schools throughout the United States.

Langdell was born in the small farming town of New Boston, New Hampshire, on May 22, 1826. With the financial assistance of his two sisters, and a later scholarship, Langdell was educated at Exeter Academy. He entered Harvard College in 1848 but left after only one year to begin his legal education by clerking in a law office, a common method of training for lawyers in those days. Within eighteen months, Langdell was back at Harvard, this time in the college's law school, where he remained for three years. Langdell was admitted to the bar in 1854 and practiced law in New York City for sixteen years.

In 1869, Harvard's new president, Charles W. Eliot, an accomplished chemist committed to educational reform, recruited Langdell to be Dane Professor of Law at the law school. It was hoped that Langdell could help revitalize the school, which had been criticized by the legal community as stagnant. In September 1870, Langdell was voted dean of the three-member faculty, a position that allowed him to change the method of legal instruction at Harvard.

Prior to Langdell, the primary teaching method in the nation's law schools was the lecture. Many professors published textbooks that were really expanded versions of their lectures. In class, students took notes while professors read lectures, or they were quizzed on specific portions of an assigned textbook reading. Discussion was rare, as it was assumed that the author of the textbook had found and set forth the true RULES OF LAW.

Langdell proposed that law students must be given some means of experimentation and research by which they might cut through the excessive verbiage of black-letter rules and discover the fundamental scientific axioms that ought to be used in studying, teaching, and judging the law. Casebooks were to be the students' laboratories. Langdell's case-study method was almost impossible to teach when he first introduced it in 1870 because of a lack of printed case reports. When Langdell introduced the case method at Harvard Law School, he had to write the books he used in his classes. His Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts (1871) was the first modern casebook and became the model for many later such books.

Langdell's new method combined the careful study of the decisions in previous cases, with the Socratic method of teaching. The Socratic method was modeled after that used by the Greek philosopher Socrates. Using this method, Langdell would ask his students a series of questions whose answers were designed to lead to a logical conclusion foreseen by Langdell.

When Langdell first used this method, many of his students were not pleased. In fact, on that first day, many students were unprepared to answer Langdell's questions about the case of Payne v. Cave. The majority of students openly condemned this new method, complaining that there was no instruction or imparting of rules and that really nothing had been learned. The newer students who had not studied law before resisted answering questions because they thought it presumptuous of them to offer an opinion on a matter in which they had no formal training. The older students, upset that Langdell imparted no legal rules, thought the answers of their fellow students nothing more than the idle talk of young boys. Students even expressed concern that they could never learn the law in time to graduate if it continued to be taught by such a method. When asked a question by a student, Langdell usually hesitated and then answered by posing a question to the student. This led some to question whether Langdell even knew the law he professed to teach.

Langdell's new method was controversial and not an immediate success. During the first semester he taught with it, his students missed classes regularly, and total enrollment in the course fell to only seven. Dissatisfaction with this educational experiment apparently spawned a new law school, Boston University Law School, and the effects were felt throughout the Harvard Law School, as enrollment fell from 136 in 1870–71 to 113 in 1872–73.

Despite student criticism, Harvard president Eliot remained committed to Langdell and his controversial method. As students began to understand Langdell's method, and in particular his Socratic process involving dialogue between teachers and students, they grew to prefer their active involvement over the relative passivity of the old lecture methods. By 1873–74, Harvard Law School enrollment began to rise again, and by 1890, Langdell's case-study method was firmly established at the flourishing law school.

Langdell's contributions to legal education go beyond the introduction of the case-study method. As dean of Harvard Law School, he added a third year to what had been a two-year curriculum and required students to pass final exams before they could advance to the next year or graduate. He was also instrumental in hiring professors who were not practicing lawyers or judges, an approach unheard of at the time.


In 1895, Langdell stepped down as dean of Harvard Law School. He continued to teach for five years before retiring in 1900. He died on July 6, 1906, at the age of eighty.

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