Re-Imagining Law School
Prof. Bill Long 10/10/06
Burying Langdell, Finally
In one of my articles/essays reviewing the contribution of CC Langdell to legal education I said that, "Langdell is dead, but he still rules us from the grave." Indeed, he died 100 years ago this year. Finally, however, the same school which gave birth to the case method under his tutelage 136 years ago is undergoing a change in conceptualizing the first-year law curriculum. What is interesting to me, however, is that this kind of change was so needed so long ago. Indeed, one might argue that by the time the Harvard faculty got around to the vote to change the 1st year law school curriculum last week, the decision was anything but a "cutting edge" decision. Nevertheless, law school education is an incredibly conservative thing; I imagine that many other law schools will follow in Harvard's wake in the next several years. As for me, I am bemused that the "tradition of Langdell" ever had such a hold on legal education.
So, here is the story, as reported in the Boston Globe a few days ago, and posted to the Internet.
About 70% of the Harvard Law faculty unanimously voted on Thursday to implement some historical changes. In today's Boston Globe article "Harvard Law to refocus the first year" is a follow-up to a post of five months ago about the then perking changes. Making a shift in the way students have been taught since 1870, changes in the first year will focus on "complex problem-solving, international law, and modern law-making by government bodies and administrative agencies" and place less emphasis on the case method.
"Good God, the first-year curriculum was developed 130 years ago, and it really hasn't changed all that much since," said Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, who spearheaded curriculum reform when she became dean in 2003. "So what we asked ourselves in these last few years is: Should it have remained quite that stable? And we decided the answer was no."
Students in the first year will have fewer hours in traditional courses we all remember so well such as torts, contracts, property. Acknowledging the global nature of the modern world, more emphasis will be placed on international and comparative law. Two new courses have been introduced, one which will focus on the solving of complex problems.
"We're very good at teaching first-year students how to read and analyze cases, make analogies and distinctions, and argue other sides of an issue," Kagan said. "But we're less good at teaching people how to be creative, flexible, innovative problem-solvers, and this is an attempt to remedy that weakness."
In the 21st century, creativity will be (and is now) essential to success in any field, including law. How many law schools are going to follow Harvard's lead? Let me know if and when you hear of similar changes at other law schools, please. Do you think this is the best way to foster creativity in law students? Are other law schools making different kinds of changes in their education of new lawyers? What do you think students most need from the new century's law schools?"
A few years ago, when I wrote on Langdell and the law school curriculum, I emphasized the adventitious nature of the casebook method--that it was developed primarily as a practical necessity given Langdell's interest in developing a "science" of law. Only one or two copies of the nominate reporter were available; Langdell wanted everyone to "have a copy" of the cases he discussed; hence, the casebook. With technological and theoretical change in what we think the nature of legal education ought to be (what DO we think it ought to be?) occurring in the last few decades, Langdell's method is, frankly, obsolete. I argued that the focus of education should be more on statutory analysis; the HLS faculty emphasizes yet other things. My vision is not incompatible with theirs, however.
It is ironic that this debate comes to a head the very day we discuss Langdell; but I am a firm believer in irony as a major part of life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long