THE CASE METHOD
In the early days of American history, a person became an attorney by serving an apprenticeship in the offices of a practicing attorney. This on-the-job training was supplemented by the candidate reading the classic treatises on the law -- mostly the older English treatises -- Coke, Littleton, Blackstone. - and those of the American treatise writers, including Chancellor James Kent, after whom one of our predecessor law schools was named.
In 1779, George Wythe was appointed professor of law at William and Mary, and many similar professorships were created at other universities thereafter. Law at that time was an undergraduate department or discipline. In 1784, the first independent law school, Litchfield, in Massachusetts, was established, and its success led to the creation of many other private law schools. Graduation from law school became an additional way of becoming a member of the bar.
The method used in the law schools and law departments was purely lecture. Professors and practitioners lectured, and students were urged to write everything down so that they would have a complete set of materials on each subject when they began practicing. Again, supplementation was through readings in the text books... the classic Blackstone's Commentaries, Coke, Kent, etc..
In 1870, Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell of Harvard popularized a new method of teaching law -- called the Case Method. His premise was the law was a science and could be taught as a science. Chemistry teachers were not taught simply by lectures but conducted experiments to determine for themselves the general theorems of chemistry. Law students should likewise be able to examine the original sources of the law -- the cases and statutes -- and synthesize from them the general principles of law.
Today, the Case Method is the predominant method of teaching of most courses at nearly all law schools. As the first step, the student reads and analyzes the original sources of the law -- selected cases, statutes, constitutional provisions, and administrative regulations. From that reading, the student is to derive an understanding of the main classifications of the law -- Contracts, Criminal Law, etc. and within each, the general doctrines and their applications to various fact situations, with an examination of the reasoning used to reach the results.
The reading of cases is augmented with the class discussion -- the so-called Socratic Dialogue. A student is asked to orally summarize a case. The professor may then ask probing questions about the case, designed to test the student's understanding of its key facts, holding and reasoning. The professor will then ask the student to apply the legal principles of the case and its reasoning to a new set of facts -- a hypothetical -- and to predict the result or argue for a result, using sound legal reasoning. Often, the professor's questions will lead to the exploration of matter not stated in the case, but which may have played a large role in the outcome -- such as historical data, additional facts not listed, economic concerns, and matters of broad social policy.
The final ingredient of the Case Method is the problem type examination. Instead of merely asking the student for a general exposition or summary of the principles studied, the test calls for students to analyze new facts, determine the legal issues raised, synthesize the relevant legal principles studied, and apply them to the set of facts to predict the results or argue one side's cause. The test is not usually designed to determine a "correct" answer; it tests the student's abilities to analyze, reason and advocate.
In addition to satisfying Langdell's belief that the law is a science and can be taught as a science, the Case Method serves to satisfy the main purpose of the school -- to train students to use the skills and abilities necessary to becoming an outstanding attorney. Furthermore, the method rests on a sound pedagogical premise -- students learn better when they take part in the learning process rather than being passive recipients of another's knowledge. Thus, undergraduate students have been shown to learn better and retain longer material they have researched and presented in term papers than material learned for an examination.