A vision of legal education that looks outward to the larger world of knowledge

When assessing and comparing law schools students usually investigate each school’s bar passage rate, starting lawyer salaries, and employment rates, considering those job statistics when determining if a particular school is a good bargain. But they do not research programs that colleagues offer because they are mainly the same and didn’t change that much for decades.

The American tradition of legal education is focused on case law and Socratic questioning created by Christopher Columbus Langdell, despite the fact that the legal world has come to reject Langdell’s philosophy of law as a science. 

But Langdell’s legacy lives, and it is especially strong in the first and most formative year of American legal education. 

American law students while learning American law are taught to look inward to a narrow telling of law – a set of rules taken from the appellate decisions of American courts. 

Poetry, literature, song, history – none of these have a place in the classroom. What has is the menacing tone of a professor’s Socratic questioning, dull pages of the overstuffed casebook, obsessively organized, and student outlines and study aids. 

There were many attempts to imagine an alternative to the standard Langdellian method of legal teaching – a vision of law in three forms: a liberal art, an American enterprise, and a practical profession. Here’s what Kara Abramson pictures in work “Art for a Better Life: A New Image of American Legal Education”

What if we picture a contracts class that starts not with Hurley v. Eddingfield or Hawkins v. McGee but with a deeper look at the ideas underpinning the notion of contract beyond its American incarnation. What if we visualize liberating contract law from the pages of an American textbook and explore its origins and its essence across time and space. What if we push the Uniform Commercial Code aside for a moment and visit contract in ancient Rome, understand how it operated in medieval Japan, hear its haunting legacy in the voices of coal miners whose songs of struggle detail the failure of contract to protect workers and revisit contract today to probe the issues of consent and free will that have shaped recent debates over trafficking in human beings. Meet the idea of contract as a rich, complex story, of which the American version is but one chapter. 

Main problems

  1. A limited narrative of the law and enforcing only one type of legal analysis. Traditional legal education-case analysis based on the Socratic method confines, compartmentalizes, and thus misrepresents, carrying ill consequences for American law students like narrowing their visions of what they can do as lawyers. Read more: Is Creativity Possible in Legal Problem Solving
  2. The disjuncture between theory and practice. The core of the problem is that the specific theories taught in American law schools fail to complement practice. When the theory is aligned to the realities of law and legal practice, it becomes a natural complement to practice skills, giving meaning to the everyday work of lawyers, allowing them to realize the implications of the tasks that they perform on the job. Read more: The Growing Disjunction Between Legal Education and the Legal Profession.
  3. Not focusing on the fact that law has a larger story and deeper origins than it’s typically portrayed in American law schools. Law is drawn from forces more far-reaching than those which can be expressed in the confines of Christopher Columbus Langdell’s legal classroom, and Jaw operates among emotions, powers, and patterns of human life more resilient than even Langdell’s legacy of legal education. Read more: The Crisis in Legal Education.
Jayron Baldwin

Jayron Baldwin is a creative writer, poet, and sports fan. He is currently compiling material to publish his very own poetry blog.