How Did the Socratic Method End Up in Law Schools?

March 8, 2013

law school graduatesChristopher Columbus is responsible for implementing the one of the things 1Ls fear the most about law school: the Socratic method. Seriously.

Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell — who did not sail the ocean blue in 1492, but did become dean of Harvard Law School — is credited with introducing the use of the Socratic method to the study of law in the 1870s in conjunction with the use of the case method, or the study of appellate court opinions, writes Professor Andrew McClurg. Prior, the law was taught through the less intimidating lecture.

In his book 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School, Professor Andrew McClurg, the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis, explains that Langdell believed law students could not master the law through rote memorization. Instead, he believed that students needed to learn to apply “legal principles to the varied fact patterns that lead to legal disputes.”

So, Langdell threw out explanatory text books and replaced them with the now-familiar casebooks. As McClurg notes, the Socratic method is used to help students “think critically and discover the law” by applying the legal principles they read about in the casebook to slightly different scenarios. While the Socratic method may seem like a torture device, there really is a reason for the seemingly endless questions and ever-changing hypotheticals.

Christopher Columbus Langdell may not have sailed the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, but he did provide the oars for law students to navigate the waters of Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Brown v. Board of Education.

Aside from my personal knowledge of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, which is cursory, everything in this post is gleaned/borrowed from Professor McClurg’s book: 1L of a Ride. For more, read Professor McClurg’s book, it’s fantastic.