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Christopher Columbus Langdell was born in New Boston, New Hampshire (Hillsborough County) on May 22, 1826. Langdell entered Harvard 1848, but discontinued his studies soon later in 1849 to pursue a teaching career. He returned in 1851 to study law, and went on to graduate at Harvard’s law school in 1853. The scholar was known to spend significant time researching, immersing himself in reading about a variety of court cases, building his knowledge base. Langdell did not experience much success as a trial lawyer. Instead, researching and writing briefs was what he was best known for.

Known for saying, “To have a mastery of these [principles or doctrines] as to be able to apply them with consistent facility and certainty to the ever-tangled skein of human affairs, is what constitutes a true lawyer….”,

Langdell practiced law in New York City between the years of 1854 to 1870. In 1870, he was appointed Dane professor of law at Harvard University. He became dean of Harvard Law School in 1875, where he held this position until 1890. Langdell worked closely with J.B. Ames (1846 – 1910) to revise the curriculum at Harvard.

Christopher Columbus Langdell – The Pioneer of the Case Method

Prior to Langdell’s significant contributions to the study of law, students and professors at the school utilized what was known as the “Dwight Method”. This technique for teaching and learning about law included a combination of lecture, recitation, and drill, and was named after Columbia professor Theodore William Dwight (1822 – 1892). With the Dwight Method, scholars were required to read “treatises”, textbooks that interpreted and summarized the law for you, and was based upon lower-levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, such as recall. Students had very little chance to integrate real-life scenarios in their studies, and got very little hands-on practice until they were immersed in their actual jobs after they completed school.

Students had the opportunity to read and dialogue about actual cases, coming to their own conclusions about which principles were applied. Langdell even compiled his own set of cases and published them, which only included a brief two page introduction that he wrote. From these, students had to draw their own conclusions and go beyond basic skills such as reciting facts. These ideas were first integrated into Harvard’s program, and later adopted at schools such as Columbia, before gaining much wider acceptance.

Later, Langdell continued to integrate this method of higher-order learning by introducing the Socratic Method to his students, where students were again required to go above and beyond simple knowledge-level question and answer session. Rather, those scholars that worked with Langdell needed to interpret and analyze various situations, and had to be prepared to answer detailed questions from the professor.

At first, there was such wide criticism of Langdell’s approach that Harvard Law’s enrollment decreased from 165 to 117 students, which caused Boston University to begin their own law school.

Langdell is best known for his integration of the “case method” into the study of law. Despite initially not being accepted by many of the more conservative teachers, Langdell continued his work, standing behind his belief that principles of law are best learned by examining them within the actual legal situations where they take place.

Langdell believed that despite laws varying from state to state, by developing a solid understanding of principles of law, lawyers would be successful anywhere they practiced.

Works by Langdell include:"Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts" (2 parts, Boston, 1870; enlarged ed., 1877); "Cases on Sales" (1872); "Summary of Equity Pleading" (Cambridge, 1877; 2d ed., 1883); and " Cases in Equity Pleading" (printed privately, 1878).Langdell died on July 6, 1906 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today one of Harvard Law School’s buildings, Langdell Hall, is named after him.

Much of Langdell’s theories are still utilized by law schools across the nation today, with some variations. Langdell is also well known for his system of “blind grading”. Coming from a modest background himself, Langdell noticed certain biases that existing when grading students from more privileged backgrounds. This method ensured that all students, despite their family wealth and/or status, had an equal opportunity in their endeavors and school work.

References:“Christopher Columbus Langdell”. Wikipedia. 2010. 13 Feb 2010. <>. “Making the Case - Professional education for the world of practice”. Harvard Magazine. 2003. David A. Garvin 13 Feb 2010. <>."Christopher Columbus Langdell." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 13 Feb. 2010 <>.



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