Legal Methods at Columbia Law School
Every year in August, shortly after the start of orientation, Columbia Law School’s newest students jump into a twice-daily, 15-hour-per-week intensive introduction to the study of law. Students learn how to read cases and statutes and learn to write case briefs. Moreover, the course provides a platform that allows new students to understand the contexts for legal materials, the development of legal institutions and, more broadly, how it all fits together.
By the time students complete the three-week course, called Legal Methods, they are ready to tackle first-year courses — Civil Procedure, Contracts, Torts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Property — on a more critical level. Legal Methods, which begins this year on August 15, aims to give first-year students, or 1Ls, a foundation on which to build their careers as law students and, eventually, as lawyers.
“I regard my job as teaching students that they are to learn how to identify and pursue questions about the law, rather than to learn what at the moment may be the answers,” said Peter L. Strauss, who has taught Legal Methods for more than 20 years. “The ability to identify questions and resolve questions as lawyers do is the basis for their success,” he said.
Strauss will teach one of four sections of the course. Veterans Jane C. Ginsburg, Philip Bobbitt, and Bernard Harcourt, who is in his second year of teaching the course, round out this upcoming academic year’s Legal Methods roster.
The course is a hallmark of Columbia Law School’s academic program and reflects its commitment to the success of its students. Many other law schools teach introductory methods courses during the fall semester rather than in advance, and some law schools have no equivalent requirements.
Columbia Law School students say they find Legal Methods excellent preparation for classes ahead and appreciate the opportunity to learn the ropes before taking on a full course load.
“You’re amassing a toolbox,” said Robert Weinstock, a graduate of the Law School. “It’s overwhelming to dive in head first, but you quickly make the transition toward legal thinking."
Originally called Legal Method, the class made its Columbia debut in September 1944 after a series of recommendations by the Law School’s Curriculum Committee between 1942 and 1943.
“The traditional practice of plunging entering students at once into the study of various fields of law was patently inefficient, because they did not have the knowledge and skill … to study law with understanding and effectiveness,” wrote Professor Julius Goebel Jr. in “The Bicentennial History of Columbia University” (Columbia University Press, 1955). The new Legal Method class, which met five hours per week for the first six weeks of the semester, equipped 1Ls with the research, analytical, and writing skills they would most need in their other first-year courses.
The course has evolved since its earliest days. The name has changed from “Legal Method” to “Legal Methods,” reflecting “the understanding that lawyers use methods that have shifted with time, and will continue to shift throughout their careers,” said Strauss. Its professors have also incorporated new material. Strauss’s concluding unit, “Modern Times,” exposes students to contemporary lawyers’ briefs and legislative materials rarely seen in law teaching materials. Ginsburg now uses more comparative law materials to expose students to civil law and to a greater breadth of legal systems.
Strauss and Ginsburg each have authored legal methods case books, widely used by law schools across the country. Ginsburg’s book organizes a syllabus around different sources of law — e.g., case law, legislation and administrative law — whereas Strauss’s book treats case law and statutory analysis side by side, and uses the development of law on related topics — product liability and workplace injury — to reveal the development of American legal institutions and analytic styles across time.Supplementing the Legal Methods course are a tutorial and a Legal Practice Workshop, which each meet in smaller sections once a week. Some professors select third-year JD students as their teaching assistants for the tutorial, while others use Associates-in-Law, who are law school graduates serving a two-year appointment at Columbia as they prepare for careers in the legal academy. The workshop, which provides training in the analysis of legal problems and in the hands-on use of a variety of legal materials, is led by Associates-in-Law or by adjunct professors and continues to meet during the fall and spring semesters.
Over the three weeks, Weinstock found that he became better able to attend to details, analyze the different contexts behind those details and understand their real-world impact.
“On one level you’re thinking about something as arcane as different kinds of couplers between rail cars, but you’re also starting to understand what that actually means for the lives of rail workers,” said Weinstock, referring to a unit on the Federal Railroad Safety Appliances Act of 1893, a springboard for the development of workplace safety laws.
In addition to its academic benefits, Legal Methods offers an opportunity for students to form relationships with classmates and professors and to become comfortable in their new surroundings before the semester gets into full swing.
Columbia’s Legal Methods professors, each considered experts in their respective specialties, enjoy teaching the introductory course and say that their students are enthusiastic, hard-working and inquisitive. “You’re teaching people who don’t take anything for granted and who question all the basics,” said Ginsburg. “It makes you rethink the basics every time.”