The Contextual Case Method: Moving Beyond Opinions to Spark Students' Legal Imaginations

19 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2022

See all articles by Susan McMahon

Susan McMahon

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Sherri Lee Keene

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: February 21, 2022


Law school promises to teach students to think like lawyers. The source material students are provided to achieve this learning—at least in the first year—is almost exclusively opinions. Class time is devoted to dissecting opinions, teasing apart the relevant from the irrelevant, drawing out rules, tracing legal reasoning, and using the knowledge gained from the opinion to address hypothetical new sets of facts.

Looked at one way, this is a re-birth, a molding of a young mind so that it is sharper, clearer, more able to deftly solve legal problems. But looked at another way, it is an indoctrination, a blinding of the mind to considerations beyond the boundaries of the opinion, an acceptance of the system as it is and a refusal to imagine how it could be. In this latter view, something valuable is shed as the lawyer is born.

The traditional case method tends to canonize opinions, make them seem neutral and correct and untouchable. A student’s legal imagination is not trained to see new possibilities; a radical reimagining of the world seems either impossible or inadvisable. Students who are shown these opinions as the prime example of legal reasoning, with few counterpoints that introduce outside perspectives or acknowledge alternative realities, are instead subtly encouraged to replicate the status quo.

Law students deserve better. Our vision is for a law school, especially a first year, where students do not read opinions in isolation, but in the broader context in which they arose. Where students are asked to assess the opinion not just as a source of rules, but as the product of a human, flawed and biased, who may or may not have been right, who may or may not have been aware of factors beyond the evidence in the case that drove the decision, who is but one player in a far larger legal playing field. Where students are asked to see beyond the boundaries of an opinion to reimagine what the law could be, not just repeat what it is.

To accomplish this, we recommend moving from the traditional case method to a contextual case method, moving from presenting opinions is isolation to pairing them with briefs or other documents that show alternate viewpoints and perspectives. The contextual case method approach acknowledges that legal decisions involve choices and offers students opportunities to recognize where these choices are made. Ultimately, it would allow students to sharpen their ability to see where some experiences and realities are relevant but nonetheless ignored in the opinions, and thus find spaces to advocate for change.

Keywords: law school, legal education, pedagogy, case method

Suggested Citation

McMahon, Susan and Keene, Sherri Lee, The Contextual Case Method: Moving Beyond Opinions to Spark Students' Legal Imaginations (February 21, 2022). 108 Virginia Law Review Online 72 (2022), Available at SSRN:

Susan McMahon (Contact Author)

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States

Sherri Lee Keene

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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