Summer Reading: Legal Education’s 9 Big Ideas, Part 3

It All Started With the Case Study

Last week we shared with you “The Four Cs,” proposed solutions to the crisis in legal education. We have one more to consider: the Case Study Method. Let’s call it the Fifth C.

Christopher Columbus Langdell

Law schools have been teaching the case method for well over a century, ever since it was proposed by HLS Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell in the late 1880s. To simplify and organize legal education, students study and analyze settled cases that exemplify principles and doctrines. But in 2007, Harvard Law School Professors Martha Minow (now HLS Dean) and Todd Rakoff were among the first to point out that the status quo just wasn’t working.

Their solution turned the case method on its head. In “A Case For Another Case Method,” Minow and Rakoff argue that the case method provides more “known” facts of the problem than situationally exist. They explain that retrospection hardly opens up the spectrum of options—it is difficult to imagine what might have been. Above all, they point out that our society now has a different conception of truth, one based on construction rather than discovery.  Experiential education, on the other hand, provides agency and teaches students “how to think like a lawyer.”

HLS Dean Martha Minow

Minow and Rakoff propose that in addition to clinics (which can be costly), law schools should adopt the case study method, popularized by the Harvard Business School. These concise, inexpensive documents explain a dilemma from the perspective of a participant or organization.  Rarely are there precise answers, but the education lies in the process: thinking through problems, practicing skills like drafting memos and interacting with clients, and understanding more about human nature in legal crises. Bonus: research suggests that experiential education makes law students happier.

Professor Todd Rakoff

They foresee four obstacles to implementing the case study method: translating the HBS model to the needs of legal education, supplying case study materials, teaching them effectively, and introducing the scenarios at an appropriate juncture in the law school curriculum (so as not to give up the case method, which has proven so useful in establishing a baseline of knowledge for 1Ls).  The mission of the Case Studies Program at HLS is to overcome them all, by creating a common discourse about experiential education, delivering products, providing teaching notes, and weaving experiential education effectively into curricula. One law professor, Scott Fruehwald, suggests that law firms should help make the push for legal education reform, with the hope that increased occupational demand will supply more experiential learning in the classroom.   But as Minow and Rakoff note, educators must get on board as well: “Frankly, many of us will need to learn some new things. … We are supposed to keep up with what is happening in our fields.”

Many of the other Big Ideas in Legal Education are compatible with the case study method: capstone experiences could be designed with case study curricula, and case studies can be adapted for online learning.  Programs like the teaching hospital, the co-op, and the corps would only improve with more experiential opportunities.  And if consortiums start advocating the case study method, we’d be in for a cultural shift.

What is your opinion of using the case study method in legal education? What are the challenges and advantages from your point of view? 

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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One Response to Summer Reading: Legal Education’s 9 Big Ideas, Part 3

  1. “introducing the scenarios at an appropriate juncture in the law school curriculum (so as not to give up the case method,…” – translation: nothing’s going to happen.

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