The Origins of Law School Examinations-No Joking Matter

In early 1870, President Charles Eliot of Harvard College invited New York lawyer Christopher Columbus Langdell (HLS 1853) to teach at the Law School; in September of that year he became its first Dean.

olvwork278617Over the next decade, Langdell instituted sweeping changes: students would be admitted only if they already possessed an A.B. or had passed a rigorous entrance examination; the course of study for the LL.B. was lengthened to three years; and no degrees would be conferred unless candidates had completed comprehensive examinations in each subject.

Most revolutionary of all, he introduced the case method of instruction, which requires students, with the guidance of the professor, to derive the principles of law from an analysis of appellant decisions. Langdell himself was the author of the first law casebook, Cases on Contracts (1871).

Langdell had been Dean for less than a year when the first examinations were administered in 1871—they have been given every year since. He also insisted that the examination questions themselves be printed, and in the succeeding dozen decades the Harvard Law School Library collected and bound the exams given each year in all of the School’s courses.

These examinations are now in the process of being digitized and the first batch is accessible here.

For first year students in the academic year 1870-71, exams were give in Property, Contracts, Torts, and Criminal Law. Here is the examination in general contracts that Langdell taught using his own casebook:


Christopher Columbus Langdell, HLS Library
Legal Portrait Collection, photograph on paper.

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