Brian Leiter, "American Legal Education: The First 150 Years"

American Legal Education: The First 150 Years
Brian Leiter
Huffington Post
January 12, 2014

Why do law schools educate new lawyers the way they do, not only through the "case method" and Socratic questioning, the methodology made famous in the 1973 film The Paper Chase (though hardly any professors are as mean as the film's notorious Professor Kingsfield), but also through interdisciplinary education in economics, history, psychology and the like?

Two individuals loom large in the story of American legal education over the last (almost!) 150 years. Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of the Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, set the paradigm for what law schools and legal scholars should do, a paradigm that lasted for nearly a century, until my colleague Judge Richard Posner finally upset it in the 1970s. That gloss perhaps exaggerates the influence of these two individuals, but only slightly.

In the 19th-century, the idea arose, beginning in Germany, that a subject requiring university study should be a Wissenschaft, a "science," though the Anglophone connotation of natural science is misleading. A Wissenschaft was any body of knowledge characterized by distinctive and rigorous methods that, when deployed correctly, would secure the reliability of its results. If law was to be a subject for university study, then it had t