The Strange Case of the Case Method

June 29th, 2018 / By

The case method is legal education’s signature pedagogy. Law professors point to the method with pride, and that pride has considerable foundation. In theory, the case method accomplishes at least five pedagogic goals:

  1. It demonstrates that law is not static; law evolves through judicial interpretation. On some topics, students also see how the law evolves through legislation and administrative regulations.
  2. It teaches students how to read and synthesize judicial interpretations. Depending on the subject, students also learn how to read statutes and harmonize them with judicial opinions.
  3. It prepares students to advocate for changes in the law–primarily in the courts, but with some approaches that can be used with legislators and other decision-makers.
  4. It develops critical thinking skills (careful reading, analogical reasoning, identification of patterns and distinctions) that are transferable to many other contexts.
  5. It instructs students on the doctrinal principles discussed in the cases and accompanying statutes.

Can the case method accomplish all of these goals–especially when it is used in a large classroom with a single end-of-semester exam? I doubt that the method ever achieved as much as it claims, except perhaps for the highest achieving students in a classroom. Today, the method has been quietly subverted to accomplish primarily the fifth goal: instructing students on doctrinal principles. Law schools stake their value on teaching the other four cognitive skills listed above, but we deliver less of that learning than we believe. (more…)

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