Christopher Columbus Langdell (1826-1906) altered the way that students of the law were educated with his development of the case law method and the treatment of law as a science. His practices were considered controversial at the time of introduction, but eventually Langdell's technique would become the basic foundation for the study of law.
Langdell was born in the small farming town of New Boston, New Hampshire, on May 22, 1826. He was the son of John Langdell and Lydia Beard. He attended the local district schools and at the age of 18 he began teaching. He also worked in the textile mills in Manchester, New Hampshire. Langdell wanted to obtain further education, and in 1845, his sisters agreed to help to support him while he worked his way through Phillips Exeter Academy. After graduating, he entered Harvard University as a sophomore with the class of 1851. He did not stay at the university long before he was granted a leave of absence in order to resume teaching, presumably with the intention of obtaining more funds to continue to attend school. He then spent sometime working in an Exeter Law office. When he returned to Harvard, it was not to the university, but to the Harvard Law School. He spent three years there, three times longer than most students at the time. He also worked as a student librarian from 1852 to 1854.
Langdell began practicing law in December of 1854 in New York City. He did not employ a lot of time appearing in court; instead he gained a reputation as an educated, knowledgeable lawyer. He spent a great deal of time studying at the Law Institute, and while he was there he had an opportunity to supply a reference to Charles O'Conor, the well-known lawyer and politician who was once nominated for president. O'Conor often returned to Langdell to request his help and soon thereafter others were coming to him for assistance as well.
After Langdell had been practicing law for 16 years, an old friend of his from school, Charles Eliot, was appointed as the President of Harvard Law School. Eliot invited Langdell to join him on the staff there as a Dane Professor of Law and dean of the law school. Langdell quickly accepted the positions and worked with Eliot to make changes in the way that the law students were taught. According to A History of American Law, "the duties of the dean were not very awesome; he was to 'keep the Records of the Faculty,' prepare 'its business,' and 'preside at its meetings in the absence of the President.' " However, Langdell, with the support of Eliot, made sweeping changes in the entire way that the law school was run. At the time, most students attended the law program for one year and achieved their degrees by attending lectures given by judges and practicing lawyers who taught at the law school as a side job. In addition, the standards for acceptance to the law school were fairly lenient, and law degrees were handed out without a great deal of testing. Langdell quickly changed all of that.
Langdell began to test students before they were accepted into the program by asking them to translate phrases in Latin from Virgil, Cicero, and Caesar, without the aid of a dictionary. In some instances, French was considered an acceptable alternative to Latin. If prospective students did not have a college degree, they were given an entrance exam. He would also quiz them on Sir Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone's Commentaries was considered a masterwork in English law and was used to form the foundation of law in America and was the standard reference material of the 13 colonies at the time of the American Revolution. Within a year of accepting the job, Langdell had the law school changing the program from one year of study to two years. In addition, he began to require final examinations at the end of each year to assure each student was ready to move on to the next level. Five years later, the program was increased to three years, although the third year did not have to be in residence. By 1899, a three-year program in residence was a mandatory requirement.
Initially, the increase in the length of the program and the stricter entrance exams led to a decrease in the number of students. In addition, the new style of teaching was considered experimental. However, the quality of the remaining students eventually provided ample evidence of the program's success as they entered the workforce.
The curriculum of the law school classes was changed to reflect a steady stream of appropriate information. Each student was required to take a set amount of different types of courses and the courses were to be taken in an established order. The style of the teaching also changed. Lectures were no longer the standard method of learning. Instead, Langdell encouraged learning through the Socratic method so that the students were taught through questions and answers instead of through lectures. The law was not learned through memorizing facts and figures. Instead, students learned through their ability to reason and recognize the science of the law. Different prior legal case decisions were brought into the classroom, and the students would discuss the principles of the law and how the laws applied to each case. Langdell felt very strongly that law was a science, and that it should be studied through its principles. In 1871, Langdell published his first casebook on contracts. He published A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts (1871), A Selection of Cases on Sales of Personal Property (1872), and Cases on Equity Pleading (1875). These texts were the first casebooks to be used as a foundation in the case method of teaching. In the preface to the Cases on the Law of Contracts, Langdell stated the theory of teaching on which he acted: "Law, considered as a science, consists of certain principles of 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… ." In addition, brief summaries were added to each of his books regarding principles developed by the cases. Later, two of these would be published separately. A Summary of Equity Pleading was published in 1877 and A Summary of the Law of Contracts was published in 1879. Later, in 1905, A Brief Survey of Equity Jurisdiction was published.
Langdell began to hire young instructors who worked as teachers and scholars of the law full-time. The legal academic was a new occupation, as previously most instructors were elderly judges and lawyers who worked as instructors at the law school as a second job. The new instructors could devote all of their professional time to the study of law. Langdell hired a student, James Barr Ames, in 1873, right as he graduated from law school. He was the first full-time academic law professor. Langdell saw Ames as someone who had the ability to teach the science of law. It did not matter to Langdell that Ames had no actual experience in the practice of law. Langdell also hired the first full-time librarian at the law school. According to the Harvard Law School web site, "He believed that the Library was to law students what the laboratory was to scientists, and that its great importance demanded that vigilant improvement be made."
Initially, Langdell's methods of instruction garnered a great deal of opposition, both from outside of Harvard, as well as within. Gradually, however, the wisdom of his methods was recognized. In 1890, one of Langdell's students, William A. Keener, left his post as a Harvard professor to join the faculty of the Columbia Law School. He introduced Langdell's case method of teaching to students at Columbia.
In 1891, the American Bar Association's Committee on Legal Education, stating that the students were not taught the law, criticized the case method. There were concerns that the method created lawyers that would not fully understand the basic concepts of justice and would produce lawyers too eager to litigate and leave too many decisions to the ruling of the judges. In 1892, according to the History Resource Center, they further again attacked the case method, stating, "The result of this elaborate study of actual disputes, … ignoring … the settled doctrines that have grown out of past ones, is a class of graduates admirably calculated to argue any side of any controversy, but quite unable to advise a client when he is safe from litigation."
Gradually, the opposition died down, and the Langdell case study method won out over all of its rivals. By the 1920's, the Harvard/Langdell case method was almost universal.
Langdell had suffered from difficulty with his eyesight since he was a young child and as he grew older, this affliction became worse. It became necessary for him to hire readers to assist him. But even the readers could not help him to maintain his position as dean; by 1895 he had to resign as the dean of the law school. His first academic law professor, James Barr Ames, replaced him as dean and continued his methods. At the time of his retirement, the case method was established not only at Harvard, but at Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Cincinnati and was being taught by Harvard Law School graduates across the country. Langdell continued to teach until 1900.
Langdell passed away on July 6, 1906. He had married on September 22, 1880, to Margaret Ellen Huson, who survived him a few years. They had no children. After he died, a trust was created in his name in order to provide funding for education of poor students.
In 1905-1906 Harvard constructed what would become the principal building on the law school campus and named it Langdell Hall. It held classrooms, faculty offices, and the library. Additions were constructed in 1929. In 1997, Langdell Hall was completely renovated. The library now occupies the entire building.
Langdell's impact on the reform of legal education in the United States was immense. Despite opposition and attacks on his unorthodox methods, Langdell stood his ground and permanently altered the course of law school education and legal history.
Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Friedman, Lawrence M., American Law, Penguin Books, 1984.
—, A History of American Law, Simon & Shuster, Touchstone, 1985.
"Langdell Hall," Harvard Law School web site, http://www.law.harvard.edu/about/langdell.shtml, (March 1, 2003). □