The Law School Revolution 1870 – Harvard

The Law School Revolution 1870 – Harvard University

The Law School Revolution 1870 – Harvard
The Law School Revolution 1870 – Harvard – Portrait of Christopher Columbus Langdell by Frederick Porter Vinton, 1892

William Blackstone (1723–1780), Theodore Dwight (1822–1892), Christopher Columbus Langdell (1826–1906)

Harvard Law School (HLS) is Harvard University’s law school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the oldest continually functioning law school in the United States, as well as one of the most respected in the country, having been founded in 1817.

With only one faculty member, the institution was floundering by 1827. The Dane Professorship of Law was then established by Nathan Dane, a notable graduate of the college, who insisted that it be presented to then-Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. The school was once known as “Dane Law School.” John H. Ashmun, son of Eli Porter Ashmun and brother of George Ashmun, took a post at Harvard in 1829 and closed his Northampton Law School, with many of his pupils joining him.

Although the outlines of these views have not been continuous throughout the school’s existence, Story’s conviction in the necessity for an elite law school based on merit and devoted to public service helped create the school’s reputation at the time. Enrollment remained low throughout the nineteenth century since university legal education was seen to add little value to apprenticeships in the legal profession. After attempting to lessen admittance criteria, HLS completely dropped entrance restrictions in 1848. HLS also abolished examination requirements in 1869.

HLS developed what has since been the traditional first-year curriculum for American law schools in the 1870s, including seminars in contracts, property, torts, criminal law, and civil process, under Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell. Langdell also established the case method of teaching law at Harvard, which is currently the dominant pedagogical paradigm in American law schools. Langdell’s idea that law may be studied as a “science” distinguished university legal education from vocational preparation.

Initially, critics defended the traditional lecture style as being speedier and less expensive, with fewer demands on professors and students. The case approach, according to proponents, had a stronger theoretical foundation in scientific study than the inductive technique. Langdell’s students went on to become prominent professors at other law schools, where they pioneered the case method. Casebooks made the system easier to use.

The Association of American Law Schools has advocated the case approach in law schools seeking accreditation since its foundation in 1900.


The First Law School (c. 250);

Blackstone’s Commentaries (1765).


The Law School Revolution 1870 – Harvard

Christopher Columbus Langdell

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)