The Beginning of Law Schools and The Study of Law
Up to the middle of the last century, the more popular method of legal instruction in America was the training of young law students in the office of a judge or practicing attorney. Even today a large number of lawyers in the United States receive their training somewhat in the same manner. In order to be admitted into the practice of law, one must pass a bar examination. This exam is conducted by a court or board acting under judicial direction. The knowledge needed to study for and pass the exam can be found wherever the candidate thinks they can find it.
The oldest law school in America was of Judge Reeve in Litchfield, Connecticut, established in 1784. For several decades’ law students received their training through lectures and instruction by Judge Reeve and his assistants, whom were practicing lawyers. This oldest American law school was a private institution. After some time there was a rise in competitors, and law courses were introduced in connection with existing colleges. Among the new schools was Harvard College, whose first professorship of law dates from 1816, but the school did not attain its position of great and rapidly increasing significance for the development of legal instruction till 1830 (Gillers 20).
In the beginning, the older American law schools were referred to as lecture schools. The “Blackstone’s Commentaries”, which were used for instruction earlier, formed the sole basis of work for these lecture schools. Through the lecture method a new style of teaching came about. It was called the text-book method. The main concept of this method was for the students to study and memorize the literature in the books and recite it to the instructor. In this method most of the students class time was occupied by mechanical testing of their knowledge and quizzing them during special hours (23). The two methods of instruction-lecture method and text-book method- were always present in newer schools and very effective. Even today in the United States these methods are used with a lot of improvements and added detail.
During the early 1870’s a man by the name of Christopher Columbus Langdell created a new method of instruction for English law. Langdell was a New York city lawyer, he was appointed dean of Harvard law school in 1875. Langdell wanted to revise the curriculum of the school. He was famed for the introduction of the “case method” system in the study of law. In his view the principles of law are best learned by inductive study of the actual legal situations (the cases) in which they occur (Janosik 32).
The instruction of the case method is an idea of learning law through studying the cases, this method soon became associated with the Socratic system of question and answer. The case method system has been at the top of American legal education for the last 110 years (Bessette 20-21). This new method never went without being questioned by conservative teachers who believed that the abstract formulation of the law was the essential need of students (22). Regardless of its critiques the method has proven to be very effective, and almost all would see its virtuosity in terms of teaching analytic skills rather than substance. The method has not had any serious competitors for awhile. The Harvard law school, where the method originated, has dominated the development of legal education for a century, proving the brilliance and effectiveness of the method (70).
The first edition of the first book planned by Langdell was “ A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts”, these books were his view of how the English common law must be taught (Lisneck, Friedland, and Salamone 18). These books were arranged in a way that the material of the field of law appears systematically organized in the order of cases. This organization is clearly indicated by the titles of the separate parts of the book and the headings of subordinate sections. In each section the cases are again chosen to form a well-defined instructional whole. The case which shows the main principle is referred to as the “leading case,” this comes first followed by cases intended to show individual extensions or limitations of the principle. As time passes the case-books are modified with new cases which continually create new law. The text-books used in the text-book method were also going through similar changes, they were continually advanced at frequent intervals, and brought up to the latest stage of literature and of the decisions of the highest court (32).
The case-books are now used everywhere in the same method of instruction. Each student thoroughly studies the cases and strives to perfect all the facts involved as well as the rule of law. Usually students prepare a brief abstract and bring it to class. During the class period the professor calls upon a student to state the content of the case. This is followed by a interchange of questions and answers by the professor and student. Later, other students get involved in the discussion and form their opinions of the case. The transition of one case to another is very rapid, pauses in between may occur if the professor notices lack of understanding by the students. After the discussion, the professor usually takes a moment to explain the case and the rules of law involved, while all students take notes. This format of instruction is not used by all professors. Every professor has a different version but basically the same idea. Some professors choose to have more discussions of the case and less lecture. And many professors cite other cases from the Law Reports and occasionally give references to single prominent legal works (Janosik 82).
Langdell himself best describes the case-book method in his own words. His analysis of his method found in 1871 should answer most questions about the idea.
“ I cannot better explain the design of this volume than by stating the circumstances which led me to undertake its preparation”…” 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 direst 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 character that the pupils might atleast derive a greater advantage from attending it than from devoting the same private time to study… 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” (Janosik 85).
Langdell’s new methods consisted in his desire to see the whole study of law built exclusively and directly upon the study of the separate cases. His purpose was that the doctrines and principles which make up the whole body of law should be derived and retained, both in their historical development and in their precise classification, from the direct study of cases, which are the real and only sources of the common law (86).
The case method system of instruction has been proven to be very successful in many ways. The method has two goals: the development of the logical, legal power of thinking, and the obtainment of positive knowledge. Students who learn from the text-book method only pick-up the mental work of another instead of himself working out the principles and legal rules from the material of the cases. When students study and memorize material, they later tend to forget and they must keep on revising. However the students who work out the abstract thoughts for them self keep a firm hold on the material, therefore the case method is exactly the method which really does convey legal knowledge (Castleman and Niewoehner 32-33). Usually the third year students, who study the more difficult cases, are analyzing the cases with great readiness and comprehend the subject matter well. Students showed not only superb logical training, potential for independent study, and quick understanding or the actual point of law involved, but also certain knowledge of positive law. Then there are the beginners, they are usually confused by what is demanded of them in class. Most of the time the particularly quick and talented students participate in debate and pick-up knowledge more rapidly. But after some time things begin to become more clear to the others, the students begin to grasp what the class is all about and soon the cooperation of the majority follows. This shows how effective the case method can be, and how quickly the students pick-up the knowledge (Gillers 90).
One professor, Mr. Justice Holmes tells of his own experiences when he first began to use the case method;
“ The result was better than I even hoped it would be. After a week or two, when the first confusing novelty was over, I found that my class examined the questions proposed with an accuracy of view which they never could have learned from text-books, and which often exceeded that to be found in the text-books.
…My experience as a judge has confirmed the belief I formed as a professor” (Janosik 35-36).
The case-books and discussions used in the case-method system are not the only basis of instruction. With the use of the case-books it seems as if the students only memorize the material and bring it into discussion during class, just like the text-book method. But there are more parts to the case-method system, the use of moot courts, or practice courts. These moot courts are held every week or every other week, they are practical exercises in the form of judicial trials or cases which the professor prepares. The whole class takes a part in the activity, which gives students hands on experience. This type of instruction forms a real life court atmosphere for students so they are able to learn through their actions.
The most primary reason for the success of the case method is the peculiar condition in which Anglo-American law finds itself, as unwritten law, in the present stage of its development (Janosik 35). Also the success of the case method is an educational success achieved by the American university law school from the point of view of methodical preparation for the practical calling of law. This success is recommended by many well-known phenomena in the legal life of America, and especially by the fact that the best law offices give to the students of Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, the preference over other applicants. Therefore, the continuos inflow of students into these schools shows the best proof of its practical success, especially in the United States where there is no legal regulation requiring law school attendance as a part of the preparation of lawyers. To sum this up, Harvard law school is one of top schools in the nation, and to see the success of its teachings and students, it should also indicate the success of the case method. Since the case method originated from Harvard University and is still used in present day.
There are many reasons why people choose to go to law school and obtain a career as a lawyer. Some people choose to go towards law because they may not be smart enough to go to go to medical school, but they want to make a lot of money. Several people believe that a lawyer has a lot of leverage and power in society. Whatever the reason is, I believe it is a good choice and there are many rewards in this field. Judge Louis G. Forer describes some facts why it is that so many people wish to be come lawyers. He says that for a fortunate five to ten percent there is a profitable practice in a few large firms. For a smaller group, there is the glamour of a glittering trial practice. For some, government service with such power- for good or evil- is very appealing. And then there the ones who do it for the right cause, to bring justice to the poor and disadvantaged, and enforce the ideas of liberty and justice for all (Gillers 4). The practice of law for most lawyers is an occupation of unending work. This occupation also pays a great deal of money (Lawyers in law firms average between $30,000 to $100,000 annually) and has great jog security, especially if you are self-employed (Gillers 5).
One of the best reasons for going to law school may be just going to law school. It is a very unique educational experience. It can train your mind to comprehend not just the black or white of life but the horizon of gray. One becomes skilled in looking beyond the emotionalism that underlies a problem or situation and in analyzing all of its implications, including the strengths and weaknesses of the options that may be available for the future as a result of present decisions. That is a significant academic experience not achievable any where else (Gillers 7-8).
These are some factors why one should choose whether and why to go to law school. Should one decide to go to law school, they should keep in mind that the educational program is such that they will have many chances to reconsider initial goals, or even change them, and still find that the decision to attend law school was a beneficial in terms of cost, time and intellectual and emotional energy. I myself have chosen to go to law school and hope that it is a good choice for me and my future. A recent article which I read in a March addition of the Wall Street Journal had indicated that there is a great disparity between blacks and whites trying to be admitted into law schools or taking the entrance exams. Fortunately for me as an African-American, this has been studied just recently by the Law Admission Council and they proved the Wall Street Journal was wrong. The truth of the matter is, the study shows that 28% of African-Americans, 31% of whites, 35% of Mexican-Americans, 38% of Hispanics, and 36% of Asian-Americans attempt to be admitted (Slides 2). The March Wall Street Journal article had indicated greater disparity between blacks and whites.
I felt the need to address this because as I said before, I am an African-American and I feel that this say a lot for African-American in the law career now. This makes me proud of the decision I have made and makes me want to strive even harder to success. In turn, this enable to keep my eyes on the prize and paint the picture of myself excepting a diploma from law school and being successful in a career in law.