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9.07.2012

Back to the Future: Returning to the Values and Practices of Early American Law Schools

Law schools did not become common until the nineteenth century.   Most, if not all, of those follow the case-based Socratic method developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard Law School in the late nineteenth century.   However, some of the law schools and teachers in the eighteenth century used methods that are now being promoted as methods to reform legal education.  This post will focus on one such method--the recognition that teaching a person to be a lawyer involved educating the whole person, and in particular assisting the law student to form a moral compass so that she would be more likely to practice law ethically.

One of the first efforts to train lawyers in a law school setting  arose at the University of Maryland with David Hoffman's A Course of Legal Study, published in 1817.   The guided course of study consisted of mandatory extensive readings and a systematic study relating law to liberal arts—all of which was designed to deepen law students’ understanding of law, law-making, and natural law philosophy.   In a 1982 article, Professor Shaffer, after detailing the method Hoffman employed to teach students, comments as follows:   "It was a carefully designed system of sequential and experiential education, which should impressive insight into the morals of law practice and what is today called learning theory."  Thomas Shaffer, David Hoffman's Law School Lectures, 32 J. Legal Educ. 127, 136 (1982).  The observation on Hoffman's grasp of the "morals of law practice" will ring true to anyone who reads his Course of Legal Study and Hoffman's Lectures. The Carnegie Institute's Educating Lawyers urges a law school curriculum that pervasively engages students to develop a conception of the moral lawyer.  Hoffman's approach was clearly one that did so-- a little under two centuries before the Carnegie report. 

In short, although some of the recommendations on how to improve legal education may seem new, the truth is that they are urging a return to legal pedagogy of an earlier era.  That Hoffman's methods were widely respected at the time, and considered effective by the legal community, ought to encourage those who wish to see law teaching look back even as it moves forward.

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