It seems curious today, but Christopher Columbus Langdell viewed his method of teaching law as intensely practical. He had, after all, practiced for what today seems a long time, fifteen years, and while he did not for an instant believe that practice experience was essential to or even helpful for law teaching, his own practice experience did inform his view of what lawyers needed. The method he put in place at Harvard – the structured multi-year curriculum, the case method, Socratic questioning, examinations based on hypotheticals rather than reciting back doctrine – was designed to prepare law students for practice better than the lecture and recitation method that had preceded it.
The method took for granted that the core to being a successful lawyer was mastering an esoteric body of knowledge. As Langdell put it in his casebook on Contracts:
[Law] considered as a science, consists of certain principles or 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.
That Langdell saw mastering a common body of knowledge and knowing how to apply it as the core of professional practice should not seem exceptional. Sociologists routinely define professions as involving the application of a common body of specialized knowledge.
What's more, the goal of learning all the important law was an achievable task for students. As late at 1897 Holmes declared mastering the “finite body of dogma” a task that could be achieved within a “reasonable time.”
Learning doctrine, of course, was not the only selling point for Langdell's method. The case method, by forcing students to experience the formation of rules directly and develop their own ways to categorize and organize doctrine, was also seen as getting students closer to what lawyers did. Armed with the law they needed and facile at applying it, graduates were equipped for practice, a generalized practice that still bore more similarities lawyer to lawyer and office to office than not.
As time went on, the importance of the common body of knowledge faded from defenses of the case method and the importance of knowing how to think about legal issues gained prominence – by 1907, Langdell’s acolyte James Barr Ames was justifying Harvard’s approach on the grounds of teaching “legal reasoning.” That justification – that law schools teach students to ‘think like a lawyer’ – has stayed with us to the present day.
As my last post considered, law practice has changed fundamentally since Langdell reformed law teaching. Today law practice is highly specialized, and rather than roaming across the field of the common law modern lawyers tend to their own narrow patch of expertise. Today, no one can master all the ‘dogma’ that is routinely applied by lawyers in the major law firms or major government agencies. There is just too much. Whatever marks the commonality of the practice of law – and should therefore play into the training of lawyers – it’s not applying the same technical legal expertise on a day to day basis.
Neither does the background knowledge or skill reflected in ‘thinking like a lawyer’ provide a sufficient answer to training lawyers. As practice has evolved, legal reasoning remains important – much as putting is important to golf – but it’s far from the whole game.