Jazzing up the Classroom

From The Practice November/December 2017
The case study method

For almost a century and a half, Christopher Columbus Langdell’s case method—often called the Langdellian method—has been the standard of the American law school curriculum in which a professor, typically at a lectern, uses published court decisions to explore principles of law. Nearly 150 years later, however, like the profession as a whole, legal education is changing. Notwithstanding its continued centrality to the law school curriculum, the Langdellian method no longer stands alone. “Legal education is going through a transformation, and what I see in terms of pedagogy is a real shift toward problem-solving approaches as opposed to simply dissecting the case law,” says Guhan Subramanian, Joseph H. Flom Professor of Law and Business at Harvard Law School and the H. Douglas Weaver Professor of Business Law at Harvard Business School. “And, in some ways, that reflects how practicing attorneys receive problems. It’s not in the form of an appellate opinion. It’s in the form of a problem that the client has that you as a lawyer need to solve.” Chief among these problem-solving approaches is the case study method—a method of teaching typically found in business schools based on real-world scenarios. In this article, we explore this emerging teaching method as it applies to the legal context—both in the J.D. and executive education classrooms.

A break from tradition

To take a step back, as noted in the lead article to this issue of The Practice, the Langdellian method is no longer adequate for teaching all skills and competencies necessary for being a well-equipped 21st-century lawyer. Take leadership as an example. Whether in a law firm, business, or government setting, lawyers need leadership skills to advance far in their careers. But the kinds of problems lawyers are most likely to encounter in their everyday work life that require strong leadership skills are not likely to show up in the text of court decisions. You can find the letter of the law, yes, but what about the best techniques for advising your CEO on what that means for the company? You can learn how case law has developed over the years to establish principles and doctrines, but what if you are a managing partner who, in addition to being a technically proficient lawyer, needs to manage the partnership and business of the firm? Black letter law is essential to a legal education, but any legal career requires a broader skill set somewhere down the line.

The impact of a case study is measured not only through the strength of the discussion that comes out of it but also by what students takeaway—otherwise it is just a story.

The case study method is designed to address these professional skills and competencies that are integral to good lawyering. Unlike the Langdellian method, which revolves around analysis of a court decision, the case study method puts students right in the middle of the problem by using real-world situations, leaning on narrative to contextualize legal issues. Starting with a narrative that features carefully researched events and direct interviews of the main actors involved, a case study seeks to immerse its readers in those events taking place through the eyes of those main actors in order to tease out critical learning objects. But the case study method is about more than just the document itself. It’s about the discussion that takes place around the case study. It’s about what takes place in the classroom with faculty and other students who have all read the same case study and are prepared to engage with the scenario.

How does the case study method work in practice? Students typically get the case study in advance of the classroom discussion. It may be a handful of pages; it may be dozens of pages. It all depends on what tensions the story is trying to highlight and how much context is needed to put students in a position where they might conceptualize what they would do were they in the protagonist’s position. Depending on the case study, there might also be exhibits (or even appendices with optional information) at the end, which could include referenced correspondences, financial figures and other relevant organizational statistics, or timelines of events. Students come to class having read the material, and the faculty come prepared to lead discussion, often with the case study’s teaching plan in hand—notes compiled over time by case writers and other faculty who have led discussions on that particular case that may include discussion questions, a rough timetable of the discussion to ensure participants are able to get to all relevant aspects of the case before the end of the session, or even pieces of information omitted from the provided story that, if introduced, could affect the discussion. And then in the classroom, the case study’s second act begins. The impact of a case study is measured not only through the strength of the discussion that comes out of it but also by what students takeaway—otherwise it is just a story. The faculty leading the discussion, the students in the room who bring their own ideas and backgrounds to the table—these are crucial elements to the case study method.

Equally crucial: the substance of case studies—the themes around which the case studies are attempting to create rich discussion. The topics of legal case studies cut across all issues that touch the work of lawyers, especially those parts that traditional legal education often misses. Case studies span matters of leadership and management, innovation and disruption, collaboration and teamwork. And while many case studies are written about law firms and legal organizations, putting students in the shoes of a lawyer in the midst of a dilemma, others are anchored squarely in the worlds of business or government. Indeed, the case study method was developed by Harvard Business School to teach business principles, and many of those business principles are of more than passing interest to practicing lawyers. Thus, a case study like “Cambridge Consulting Group: Bob Anderson,” whose protagonist is a consultant, still has a lot to offer lawyers. Like law firm leaders, Bob Anderson is a producing manager serving client organizations, trying to balance managing younger talent, forming long-term strategy, and making time for his family. These issues are relevant to lawyers. (For more on how executive education creates programming around this imperative, see “Attention to Detail.”)

In order to accomplish this on a larger scale—to build an assemblage of case studies specifically in legal contexts and explicitly for lawyers—Harvard Law School has since formed its own case study apparatus, funded in part by a grant from Dechert LLP: the Case Development Initiative (CDI). Previous installments of The Practice’s “From the Classrooms” section have included many of these case studies, covering such topics as communication and strategy formation at Linklaters, culture and leadership at Heenan Blaikie, crisis management in-house at General Motors, and collaboration and compensation at Duane Morris. But these case studies are more than words on a page. As we will see, they come to life in the classroom and, if they are successful, echo throughout a student’s career.

Each case study’s a stage

When talking about case studies, it helps to consider the whole experience—from the written story to the faculty and participants in the room. When these pieces come together in just the right way, they create a truly impactful learning tool. That starts with what is contained in the case study itself. But what characterizes a good case study?

The ideal case study has precisely the right amount of information: not so much that readers are overwhelmed and unable to keep the important questions in focus; not so little that they are frustrated and confused about how the dots connect. Depending on the story, that might mean a trim three pages or many times that size with shifting story tracks, multiple protagonists, and comprehensive exhibits to tabulate relevant but incidental information that readers are very likely to wonder about as they think through problems. Wherever this equilibrium is for the story at hand, a good case study finds it.

A case study must be balanced such that a reasonable person might argue either side of each issue.

There is another type of equilibrium required for a case study to really hit home: It is balanced such that a reasonable person might argue either side of each issue. The goal of the case study method is to draw out different and even conflicting lines of argument and thought from students. Case studies ask students to make tough calls, which is the whole point—better to practice them first in the classroom setting because they will come up again in some form or another. Thus, the string of either-or questions and which-path-do-you-choose scenarios that thread throughout the case study ought to be head-scratchers. There is no definitively right answer to the major dilemmas of a case study, and students are not supposed to feel absolutely certain of their decisions. Like the real world, there are always winners and losers in a case study, and the readers are placed in the position of the decision makers.

Finally, the perfect case study is accessible to a wide audience of lawyers—neither too narrow nor too broad. It is comprehensible such that novices can follow along as well as accurate to the extent that it comes across as authentic to more-experienced professionals well into their careers. In short, all are readily able to connect with the material, identify where it applies to their current context, and note where it might one day apply to their future circumstances. In this way, the perfect case study finds life outside the classroom, as readers call back to its story and dilemmas and the potential solutions they came up with alongside their peers. (For more on the impact of case studies taught in executive education, see “The Impact of Executive Education Programs.”) If a case study can accomplish this multidimensional balancing act, it sets the stage for an engaging discussion with a lasting impact.

It is important to remember that all this is just the beginning of the experience. The stage has been set, but there is still a show to put on; there is still the discussion, fueled by real-world experience and professional expertise, full of enlightening takeaways and practical firsthand accounts. To understand how a case study becomes a meaningful discussion and, in a broader sense, what makes the case study method effective in legal education, The Practice sat down with CDI’s Lisa Brem and Rachel Gordon. As they put it, the case study is a launching point, and in order to bring out all the case study has to offer, you need both capable faculty to teach and guide the conversation and engaged students to respond to the material, the faculty, and one another. “I’ve been asked whether there is value in developing a case study over, say, assigning students a New York Times article about a subject,” says Brem, case writer and managing director CDI. “And while news articles or other readings can present relevant facts and opinions, they were not created with a faculty member’s pedagogical goals in mind. Case studies, on the other hand, are designed specifically to meet those goals, will generate a more productive discussion, and will be much more likely to hit the pedagogical target.” Brem notes that there is a whole spectrum of teaching methods, ranging from completely immersed (for example, role-play simulations) to more passive learning (for example, lectures). For her, case studies strike a balance. She explains, “Case studies are a nice sweet spot where the discussion is led by the faculty, but where the participants are critical actors.”

There is no definitively right answer to the major dilemmas of a case study, and students are not supposed to feel absolutely certain of their decisions.

Brem compares the workings of a case discussion to that of a jazz ensemble. The score is the starting point, but improvisation is welcomed, and the most interesting melodies and tones are often generated by the interplay of unwritten sounds. In the case study method, the case is the written music and the faculty sets the tone and keeps the group centered on the learning objectives, but the most interesting discussions are often generated by the interplay among the people in the room. Whether it is an executive education program or a J.D. class, the faculty have a good sense of who is in the room and how each person’s background and experience might inform the discussion. And, as Brem notes, “As they’re teaching a case, the most experienced case teachers will know to say, ‘Bring in the bass!’ at just the right moment to leverage a participant’s experience for the benefit of all.” So, while there is a teaching plan and a general structure to the discussion, there is plenty of room for improvisation. Indeed, it is what makes the medium such a special experience. In a symbiotic manner, the faculty and participants are critical to the success of a case study. (For more on how these components contribute to complete executive education experiences, see “Attention to Detail.”)

The writers and the subjects

Two important players are (typically) not in the room during a case discussion but are nevertheless indispensable in the creation of a case study: the case writer(s) and the protagonist(s). In fact, the partnership between the two is what makes all other parts of a case study possible. As the case writers at CDI explain, they will set out with some number of learning objectives in mind, often in collaboration with a faculty member who might go on to lead the case discussion. Then, they put together a narrative drawn from their own research as well as interviews with some of those involved. In the case of the latter, setting expectations is key.

When case writers approach the subject of a story for an interview, they have to be clear about what a case study is—a learning instrument—and what it is not—neither investigative reporting nor marketing tool. As a learning instrument, a case study cannot tell the protagonist’s full story, because without some element of open-endedness, there isn’t room for students to explore the scenario and its many possible outcomes. And because a case study is not a marketing tool, case writers cannot gloss over the factors that may have contributed to a crisis; after all, that tension is precisely what the case study method is attempting to examine so that students might better navigate such crises when they arise in the course of their own careers.

What, then, compels protagonists to share their stories? A few possible motivations factor in to any subject’s decision to share not only his or her time but an account of what was probably a very challenging experience, both professionally and personally. To one extent, they might be motivated to talk about that big problem they overcame for just that reason—not only was it a big problem, but they overcame it. They might also have educational motivations for sharing their story—“I wish I had discussed a situation like this earlier in my career to better prepare me!” Still another motivation might be the prestige factor—“Even if it’s not marketing, why pass on the chance to collaborate with Harvard?”

Why the case study method?

We have seen how the case study method presents a shift from the traditional delivery of legal education, and we have seen how the pieces of a case study fit together, but why use this method? What is unique about case studies? Rachel Gordon, who has written dozens of case studies, offers three good reasons they should be used to teach and train lawyers:

  1. They’re visceral. “There’s something about a good case study that sucks you in, and as human beings we like to be sucked in,” notes Gordon. Case studies immerse you in the story, offering enough detail for you to relate to the protagonist and think critically about how you would act in that position. That kind of active learning can pay dividends throughout a legal career.
  2. They’re an illustration of concepts. Case studies show how people achieved great things and solved complex problems—especially around leadership and some of these professional skills. It’s one thing to say someone built a culture at a firm, but what does that mean? What were the steps? What does it look like to do that? Case studies show you how.
  3. They’re a safe, interactive way to explore new ideas. For lawyers, this is not easy to come by. And in case studies, there is plenty of give and take. You are learning from the case study, but you are also interacting with your peers and your peers are contributing in ways that enhance your learning. A news article, no matter how good it is, cannot do all that.

Preparing for a case discussion

Suppose you are planning to attend a case discussion. Perhaps you are in law school; perhaps you are taking an executive education course; perhaps after all you have read here, you just have to experience it for yourself. Now how do you prepare to discuss the case study? “There are implicit and explicit cues to look out for,” Gordon suggests. She continues:

First, consider how to contextualize the written material in front of you. Often there are discussion questions that will accompany the case study, and you should bear these in mind as you read through the story. Those would be explicit cues that portend where the discussion will go. An implicit one might be the class or session in which the case is being used. What might the faculty want us to get out of this?

As far as the content itself, approach it with the understanding that all the information has been provided for a reason. There is no need to commit every word to memory, but familiarize yourself with each part of the case study—including the exhibits and appendices at the end. There’s a pedagogical underpinning for every section, and it is worth spending some time on each. If you walk into the classroom prepared to discuss the case with a decent recall of the material, you are in good shape. As Gordon notes, you do not need to come armed with the answers, but it helps to have considered the various positions one might take. After all, case studies are not about walking away with the answer. “It’s about considering the scenario from multiple angles,” Gordon says. “And so, if you leave feeling more prepared to take on those challenges yourself, should they ever arise, then the case study will have done its job.”


The Making of Lawyers’ Careers: Inequality and Opportunity in the American Legal Profession

Special Event
April 9, 2024 - April 9, 2024 December 8, 2023 - December 8, 2023 ET