Christopher Columbus Langdell

views updated May 23 2018

Christopher Columbus Langdell

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.

Harvard Law School

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."

Case Method Faced Opposition

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.

The Legacy Continued

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,, (March 1, 2003). □

Langdell, Christopher Columbus (1826-1906)

views updated Jun 27 2018

Christopher Columbus Langdell (1826-1906)

Law professor


Background. Christopher Columbus Langdell was born on a farm in New Boston, New Hampshire, in 1826. He went to work in the textile mills of Manchester, New Hampshire, then worked his way through Exeter Academy before entering Harvard at the age of twenty-two. He left Harvard without a degree, returned to Exeter to read law, and then at the age of twenty-five entered Harvard Law School. Langdell stayed at the law school for three years, twice as long as most law students at the time. He supported himself by working in the college library and doing occasional editorial work for professors. After graduating in 1853, he practiced law in New York for sixteen years before returning to Harvard in 1870 as Dane Professor of Law and dean of the law school.

Changing the Law School. Langdell changed the law school and the role of the dean. He saw the dean as a leader, not just an administrator. Langdell raised the standards for admission to the law school, requiring prospective students to translate a long passage of Latin (without a dictionary) and answer questions drawn from Sir William Blackstones Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). At the end of the first year students were examined to determine if they could continue. In 1871 Harvard extended from eighteen months to two years the course of study to earn a law degree and by 1899 required three years to complete a degree. Langdell also began to draw on legal scholars rather than lawyers to teach in the school, creating the idea of a law professor as someone who taught, rather than practiced, law. James Barr Ames, appointed to teach at Harvard in 1873, was the first of these academic lawyers. University administrators were reluctant at first to accept the appointments, wanting instead to find practicing attorneys to teach law. However, Langdell and Harvard president Charles Eliot, wanted the law school to train not only lawyers, but prospective law teachers. By 1895, when Ames succeeded Langdell as dean, Harvard graduates were teaching at influential law schools across the country.

The Case Method. Under Langdells supervision the law courses at Harvard did not require memorization of facts, but the ability to reason and think. In 1870 Langdell introduced the case method of teaching. Instead of professors lecturing on abstract principles of law, students would read collections of cases and court decisions and from them gather the underlying principles. Roscoe Pound, later dean of the law school himself, recalled, Langdell was always worried about Why? and How? He didnt care particularly whether you knew a rule or could state the rule or not, but how did the court do this, and why did it do it? Pound recalled that Langdells class on equity pleading bored him at times, but that when he went back to Nebraska to practice law he looked over his notes from the course and discovered he knew an awful lot about it.

Challenges to the Case Method. Not all lawyers or law schools readily embraced the case method. In 1891 the American Bar Associations Committee on Legal Educations Committee on Legal Education attacked the case method for not teaching lawyers the law. The case method, the ABA committee warned, was producing lawyers too eager to litigate, too willing to support clients in bad cases, able to cite opinions without fully comprehending underlying ideas of justice, and, like eager college students, leaving it to the judge to make a ruling. Lawyers, the ABA argued, should know the rules and should try to resolve questions before they came to court. In 1892 the ABA further attacked the case method. 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. Trained in the case method, the lawyer saw himself as a hired gladiator ready to argue any case.

Success of the Case Method. By the time Langdell retired in 1895, the case method was established not only at Harvard, but at Northwestern, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Cincinnati, where dean and future U.S. president William Howard Taft reorganized the law school. In the early twentieth century some law schools still rejected the case method as being too unconventional. However, by the 1940s virtually every law school in the country followed the case method.


James Barr Ames, Christopher Columbus Langdell, in Great American Lawyers, edited by William Draper Lewis (Philadelphia: Winston, 1909);

Arthur E. Sutherland, The Law at Harvard: A History of Men and Ideas, 18171967 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Langdell, Christopher Columbus

views updated May 29 2018


"Mr. Fox, will you state the facts in the case of Payne v. Cave?" That simple question marked the beginning of a revolution in legal education. In 1870, Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell, in the first contracts class he taught at Harvard Law School, put the question to a student and forever changed the way lawyers learned their craft. No longer would law students sit passively and take notes while their professor lectured or read out of a legal treatise. Langdell's students read the reports of actual court cases and were required to discuss them in class. Langdell is credited with introducing the case-study method of instruction into U.S. law schools. Although there is evidence that Langdell was not the first to use the case method, as dean, he had the opportunity to shape the program of the influential Harvard Law School and in turn the law training programs of schools throughout the United States.

Langdell was born in the small farming town of New Boston, New Hampshire, on May 22, 1826. With the financial assistance of his two sisters, and a later scholarship, Langdell was educated at Exeter Academy. He entered Harvard College in 1848 but left after only one year to begin his legal education by clerking in a law office, a common method of training for lawyers in those days. Within eighteen months, Langdell was back at Harvard, this time in the college's law school, where he remained for three years. Langdell was admitted to the bar in 1854 and practiced law in New York City for sixteen years.

In 1869, Harvard's new president, Charles W. Eliot, an accomplished chemist committed to educational reform, recruited Langdell to be Dane Professor of Law at the law school. It was hoped that Langdell could help revitalize the school, which had been criticized by the legal community as stagnant. In September 1870, Langdell was voted dean of the three-member faculty, a position that allowed him to change the method of legal instruction at Harvard.

Prior to Langdell, the primary teaching method in the nation's law schools was the lecture. Many professors published textbooks that were really expanded versions of their lectures. In class, students took notes while professors read lectures, or they were quizzed on specific portions of an assigned textbook reading. Discussion was rare, as it was assumed that the author of the textbook had found and set forth the true rules of law.

Langdell proposed that law students must be given some means of experimentation and research by which they might cut through the excessive verbiage of black-letter rules and discover the fundamental scientific axioms that ought to be used in studying, teaching, and judging the law. Casebooks were to be the students' laboratories. Langdell's case-study method was almost impossible to teach when he first introduced it in 1870 because of a lack of printed case reports. When Langdell introduced the case method at Harvard Law School, he had to write the books he used in his classes. His Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts (1871) was the first modern casebook and became the model for many later such books.

Langdell's new method combined the careful study of the decisions in previous cases, with the Socratic method of teaching. The Socratic method was modeled after that used by the Greek philosopher Socrates. Using this method, Langdell would ask his students a series of questions whose answers were designed to lead to a logical conclusion foreseen by Langdell.

When Langdell first used this method, many of his students were not pleased. In fact, on that first day, many students were unprepared to answer Langdell's questions about the case of Payne v. Cave. The majority of students openly condemned this new method, complaining that there was no instruction or imparting of rules and that really nothing had been learned. The newer students who had not studied law before resisted answering questions because they thought it presumptuous of them to offer an opinion on a matter in which they had no formal training. The older students, upset that Langdell imparted no legal rules, thought the answers of their fellow students nothing more than the idle talk of young boys. Students even expressed concern that they could never learn the law in time to graduate if it continued to be taught by such a method. When asked a question by a student, Langdell usually hesitated and then answered by posing a question to the student. This led some to question whether Langdell even knew the law he professed to teach.

Langdell's new method was controversial and not an immediate success. During the first semester he taught with it, his students missed classes regularly, and total enrollment in the course fell to only seven. Dissatisfaction with this educational experiment apparently spawned a new law school, Boston University Law School, and the effects were felt throughout the Harvard Law School, as enrollment fell from 136 in 1870–71 to 113 in 1872–73.

Despite student criticism, Harvard president Eliot remained committed to Langdell and his controversial method. As students began to understand Langdell's method, and in particular his Socratic process involving dialogue between teachers and students, they grew to prefer their active involvement over the relative passivity of the old lecture methods. By 1873–74, Harvard Law School enrollment began to rise again, and by 1890, Langdell's case-study method was firmly established at the flourishing law school.

Langdell's contributions to legal education go beyond the introduction of the case-study method. As dean of Harvard Law School, he added a third year to what had been a two-year curriculum and required students to pass final exams before they could advance to the next year or graduate. He was also instrumental in hiring professors who were not practicing lawyers or judges, an approach unheard of at the time.

"Law, considered as a science, consists of certain principles or doctrines. To have 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."
—Christopher Langdell

In 1895, Langdell stepped down as dean of Harvard Law School. He continued to teach for five years before retiring in 1900. He died on July 6, 1906, at the age of eighty.

further readings

Carter, W. Burlette. 1997. "Reconstructing Langdell." Georgia Law Review 32 (fall): 1–139.

Grey, Thomas C. 1983. "Langdell's Orthodoxy." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 45.

Kimball, Bruce A. 2002. "Young Christopher Langdell, 1826–1854: The Formation of an Educational Reformer." Journal of Legal Education 52 (March-June): 189–237.

Speziale, Marcia. 1980. "Langdell's Concept of Law as Science: The Beginning of Anti-Formalism in American Legal Theory." Vermont Law Review 5.

Weaver, Russell L. 1991. "Langdell's Legacy: Living with the Case Method." Villanova Law Review 36.


"Contracts" (Appendix, Primary Document).

About this article

Christopher Columbus Langdell

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic