Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Mortimer Sellers, Stephan Kirste

Legal Education

  • Ronaldo Porto Macedo JuniorEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_519-1

The Concept of Legal Education

Legal education is traditionally understood as the preparation or instruction for the practice of law. Nowadays the basic institutional locus for this education is the Faculty of Law, commonly a Department of a University. Legal education has been part of the University’s tasks since the Middle Ages when the University of Bologna, the first European university, was founded as a Law School in the twelfth century.

Since the advent of the modern university-based law schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that legal education adopted a new educational profile. Ever since legal education has faced the challenge of reconciling its aim of teaching law as one of the academic disciplines with its goal of preparing persons to become members of a profession. Most of the contemporary legal education still deals with a tension between offering more academic and theoretical and offering practical training for practicing lawyers. Critics of legal education often criticize it either for being excessively theoretical and incapable of training lawyers to solve day-to-day legal problems or for being deficient in building solid academic background that would enable lawyers to deal with the most complex problems that legal profession posed to them.


In ancient Athens, there has been no development of a true legal profession. The sovereign and democratic people of Athens (especially during the second half of the fifth and the first half of the fourth century BC) displayed some aversion to the professional lawyer.

In contrast with ancient Greeks’ experience, the grandeur of the Roman law was, in fact, the concerted achievement of the Roman legal profession. In ancient Rome, the legal profession was honored and favored its members to achieve technical proficiency and pride of professional accomplishment throughout the empire. As a consequence, there was more incentive to legal education which was basically offered in schools of rhetoric which provided useful advocate training but no systematic study of the law.

During the third century BCE, Tiberius Coruncanius gave public legal instruction, and a class of jurisprudents (nonpriestly legal consultants) emerged. In this new setting, a student could read some (few) law books and attach himself to a particular jurisprudent and learn the law by attending consultations and by discussing points with his master. Over the ensuing centuries, some jurisprudents established themselves as regular law teachers. Besides a body of legal literature developed.

In the medieval universities of Europe, including those in England, it was possible to study canon law and Roman law. However, the local or customary legal system was not taught, since it was understood as parochial and so unworthy of university treatment. The study of national law came later in many parts of Europe and only started in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

On the continent of Europe, the transition to the study of national law was facilitated by the fact that modern legal systems grew mostly from Roman law. In England, the national law, known as the common law, was provided for legal practitioners by the Inns of Court through reading and practical exercises.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, most of the legal education moved toward the study of printed books. Although some jurists such as William Blackstone lectured on English law at Oxford in the 1750s, the university teaching of the common law did not develop significantly until the nineteenth century.

In England, as on the Continent and throughout most of the rest of the world (the exception is the United States), university-based legal education became an undergraduate program and remained so until quite recently. Since the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, influenced by globalization and the prominent role of the US economy, many countries have adopted the so-called US model of legal education. According to it, university-based instruction in law should focus on the profession rather than only as an academic discipline.

In the early years of the United States, following the English tradition, persons hoping to enter the law sought apprenticeships in the offices of leading lawyers. Later university-based law schools (such as Harvard University founded in 1817) played a paradigmatic role in American legal education. By the late nineteenth century, Harvard had put in place a number of practices that eventually came to define American legal education, including the use of the “case method” of instruction (developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell). Besides, it adopted the requirement that students complete 3 years of training. Later the university hired full-time faculty of scholars, instead of a part-time faculty of practicing lawyers as had previously been the dominant pattern.

The Objectives of Legal Education

The history of legal education has also shaped the objectives, goals, and social function of legal education. In theory of the basic aims of law schools is to make the students familiar with legal concepts and theories and legal reasoning. For this purpose, legal education usually focuses intensively on the study of legal dogmatics (a body of decision-making theories useful for lawyers). It is also a central feature to show and explain how legal institutions (courts, political powers, administration, etc.) work. These skills are essential to be a legal professional such as a judge, a legal adviser, a lawyer, or a prosecutor.

Usually, law schools also aim to offer the students some knowledge about social, economic, and political contexts that are related to the practice of law. The globalization has produced some pressure in most law schools for adopting more interdisciplinary approaches to law. Following this trend, disciplines such as sociology of law, philosophy of law, and many “law and” disciplines (such as law and economics, political science and law, etc.) are becoming more popular in law schools’ curriculum. Among them, law and economics is probably the most pervasive influence, especially in new areas of law related to economy and technology. In the United States, Canada, and some European countries, law schools sometimes appoint economists, historians, political scientists, or sociologists to their staffs. Besides, most law schools that belong to a university allow their students to take courses outside the law school as part of their work toward a degree.

Nevertheless, it is important to notice that most traditional law schools, especially in the civil law tradition, still base the dominant legal education on statutes and codified law analysis and commentaries. In common law tradition countries, the study of the legal precedents is usually more frequent and combined with statutes analysis. In general, European continental and Latin American legal education tend to be more abstract and doctrinal than the American counterpart.

Study and Teaching

Some disciplines constitute the core body of basic subjects a law student should study. They are constitutional law, contract law, torts, property, criminal law, corporate law, civil procedure, and legal theory. In civil law countries that usually offer a long list of mandatory courses, other areas of private law are also included such as family law. Besides, disciplines such as Introduction to the Study of Law are also frequent in the curriculum.

Both civil law and common law models of legal education also include a varied class of nonmandatory courses such as regulation, law and economics, securities regulation, bankruptcy law, environmental law, banking law, legal history, philosophy of law, etc., depending on the emphasis given by the specific law school.

The basic purpose of the basic courses is to make the students acquainted with the basic concepts and methods of legal dominion. However, it is a commonplace to say that legal education is usually not in harmony with both legal practice and the legal profession and the labor market in general. On one hand, many law schools still insist on traditional legal methods and legal materials that are at odds with the legal practice. In this case, the law in books is not updated with the law in action. This kind of problem is commonly associated with the challenge of offering a broad view of legal doctrine together with a grip with what is happening with the fast-evolving legal practice.

On the other hand, it is important to notice that law schools do not deal with students who are going to pursue a legal career. In many traditional law schools, it is noticeable that many former students go to other areas of professional practice, such as the private sector, civil service, and business. For this reason, it is important for legal education to train the professionals with skills that can be useful in other nonlegal areas of the professional market, such as analytic thinking, reading, verbal expression, and a clear understanding of how the institutions work.

This phenomenon is even more evident in many non-elite law schools in Latin America. In Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and even in other continents such as Africa, Asia, and North America, the huge expansion of law schools in recent years was driven by economic interests of education entrepreneurs (opening new schools at lower costs) and the students coming from lower economic classes looking for better opportunities in the labor market. In this sense many of the hundreds of law schools in Mexico, Brazil, India, etc., social function is not to form jurists but rather to serve as a tool for upward social mobility. Most of the students in these law schools do not find a job as lawyers, judges, or legal advisers. They usually get better opportunities in civil service, in education, and in the private sector, commerce, or industry.

Some critics see a disease in this situation since legal education should be focusing on offering education for those really interested in following a legal profession. Even though this could be labeled as an anomaly, it is one that is making a big impact in legal education in many countries and somehow expanding its social function beyond its traditional scopes. It is clear that the curriculum of the law school also must allow for the great diversity of careers followed by those who have been trained in the law.


The methodology of legal education can vary considerably in different law schools and legal traditions. Most modern law schools tend to mix different methods of legal training such as Socratic method (today understood in a less orthodox way than if used to be in the last century), case method (in which the student reads reported cases and other materials collected in a casebook), and lecturing and tutorials (or seminars) based on previously read materials. The balance of these methods usually varies from school to school, and lecturing is still the dominant pedagogy in most civil law countries. It is important to notice that formal lectures permit very large compared with those recommended for seminars and tutorials. This reality impacts the costs of legal education. For this reason, usually, low-cost law schools are usually heavily dependent on formal lectures.

The cost also affects legal scholarship. Generally speaking, it has undergone an important change in the last 50 years. Still today, with the exception of the better-ranked law schools in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other European countries, most legal scholars combine one foot in the academy and one in the world of affairs. Since the late twentieth century, there has been a growing trend toward a more scholarly approach. In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, top-ranked law schools’ evaluations for tenure became closer to other academic fields. This process is following a similar but slower pace in Latin America where the majority of the faculty is still composed of part-time professors who also have a job as legal professionals.

This move toward a more scholarly approach also impacts legal education since students in contact with more academic faculty tend to adopt a stronger focus on research and pay more attention to scientific methods for legal thought and writing.



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Sao Paulo and at Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV Direito SP)São PauloBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marcelo Galuppo
    • 1
  • Vitor Medrado
    • 2
  1. 1.College of LawFederal University of Minas GeraisBelo HorizonteBrazil
  2. 2.Pontifical Catholic University of Minas GeraisBelo HorizonteBrazil