Casebooks, Commentaries, and Curmudgeons: An Introductory History of Law in the Lecture Hall

98 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013

Date Written: 1997


While the methods of instructing American law students have changed over the course of two-hundred years, the primary purpose of American law schools has stayed the same: providing the necessary education for enabling students to effectively practice law. Additionally, legal education should achieve three goals: to provide students a way to learn, organize, and apply the law. Forms of legal education take various forms, each having advocates and opponents. Casebooks — often accompanied by the Socratic method — provide an effective way for students to learn the law through historical rules and decisions, while treatises add organization to a body of law’s relationships among applications. A critique of the casebook method is that the student is presented with a presumably correct adjudication of a legal issue from the start. In response to this critique, problem books were developed to give students the opportunity to practice their developing legal skills by confronting hypothetical legal problems. From these three methods, a host of new variations have developed, which include but are not limited to: canned briefs; commercial outlines; and supplements like the Computer Assisted Legal Instruction ("CALI") system. These variations present new opportunities for students to seek help outside of the classroom, though they are sometimes in conflict with a professor’s pedagogical design. In-class variations also exist, as many professors have begun to embrace new teaching methods such as team activities and client counseling based role-playing. Even though lecture halls have changed much, educational goals have not. Instructional education and training may still be achieved, despite the methods employed, if professors are active in guiding students in the right direction by synthesizing the three goals of legal education.

Keywords: Case method, treatise, socratic method, problem book, legal education, commercial outline, canned brief, supplement, innovation, William Blackstone, James Kent, Joseph Story, Theodore Dwight, Christopher Langdell

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Sheppard, Stephen M., Casebooks, Commentaries, and Curmudgeons: An Introductory History of Law in the Lecture Hall (1997). Iowa Law Review, Vol. 82, 1997. Available at SSRN:

Stephen M. Sheppard (Contact Author)

St. Mary's University School of Law ( email )

One Camino Santa Maria
San Antonio, TX 78228-8602
United States

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