International Legacies of a Century and a Half of the Case Method

Save the Constitution, the United States’s most famous legal export may well be the case method. This article pieces together the story of how C.C. Langdell’s brainchild was brought to the rest of the common law world in treading the momentous events and geopolitics of the last century and a half, and reflects on the lessons from this global experiment for the present and future of the case method. After initially attracting little attention abroad besides in Canada, the rise of the case method encountered its watershed in the postwar period, which marks the advent of the U.S. as the first world power. From then on, the case method’s further expansion branched into two narratives: in the Western world where its implementation was mainly carried on the initia-tive of local professors who had previously been exposed to the U.S. system of legal education, and in the rest of the former British Empire, which, during the 1960s, benefited from vast amounts of U.S. funding and resources to shore up – and, in many countries, literally found – the national systems of legal education. The overseas experiments with the case method yielded a number of durable successes, and cast a light on its singular ability to adapt to widely differ-ent environments and circumstances. But mostly the overall picture is one of mixed results, es-pecially outside the Western world, owing to a collective failure to devise an educational pro-gram adapted to the varying local circumstances. To the great majority of common law coun-tries, the case method ended up representing less a revolution than a notable contribution to the development of legal education. As with law itself, the teaching of law is inextricably tied to local contexts and world politics, thus making the future of the case method as difficult to pre-dict as it would have been for Langdell and his contemporaries. Today’s different national and international contexts from that of 1945 could represent an opportunity to reassess the merits of the case method in our more mature legal and educational environments, freed from colonial and neocolonial agendas.

This content has been updated on 7 May 2023 at 8 h 29 min.