How do these approaches differ from legal formalism and the influences of Christopher Columbus Langdell?

Drawing from what you have learned so far this semester, summarize the contribution of legal realism and sociological jurisprudence to law and society. How do these approaches differ from legal formalism and the influences of Christopher Columbus Langdell? How can these approaches (legal realism and sociological jurisprudence) help us better understand “law-in-action?” Provide at least three examples (either historical or contemporary) to support your discussion.


Legal theory has long played a pivotal role in shaping the understanding and application of law within society. This essay delves into two influential approaches in legal theory: legal realism and sociological jurisprudence. These approaches, which emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have significantly contributed to our comprehension of law and its effects on society. This essay aims to elucidate the key principles of legal realism and sociological jurisprudence, contrast them with legal formalism, and explore how they aid in grasping “law-in-action.” Through historical and contemporary examples, we will illustrate the practical implications of these theories in the legal domain.

I. Legal Realism: A Pragmatic Approach to Law

Legal realism, as a significant and influential legal theory, places a paramount emphasis on the necessity of considering real-world factors when evaluating legal decisions and their ensuing consequences (Smith, 2019). This perspective arose as a direct response to the rigid formalism that dominated legal thought during the late 19th century. Legal realists argue persuasively that legal determinations should not be seen as solely originating from statutes and precedent; rather, they are profoundly shaped by a complex interplay of judges’ personal beliefs, societal norms, and practical considerations.

A. Departure from Legal Formalism

Legal realism stands in stark contrast to the entrenched doctrine of legal formalism, which perceives law as an objective and predictable system primarily guided by precedent and statutes (Smith, 2018). Legal formalism, rooted in the influence of Christopher Columbus Langdell, underscores a strict and unwavering adherence to precedent and the application of legal reasoning, often at the expense of ignoring the broader societal context within which laws operate. In contrast, legal realism boldly challenges this perspective by asserting that law is inherently subjective, inherently reflecting the biases and values of the individuals tasked with making legal decisions.

B. Understanding “Law-in-Action”

Legal realism furnishes an invaluable and multidimensional framework for comprehending the concept of “law-in-action” by not only acknowledging but emphasizing that judicial decisions are far from mere mechanical applications of established rules. Rather, they are intricate responses to the ever-evolving social realities of their respective eras (Smith, 2017). By recognizing the pivotal role of judges’ discretion, motivations, and the prevailing societal pressures they confront, legal realism enriches our comprehension of the multifaceted practical implications that stem from legal decisions. This perspective underscores the dynamic nature of law and the necessity of considering the broader socio-cultural context within which it operates.

II. Sociological Jurisprudence: Law as a Social Phenomenon

Sociological jurisprudence, often referred to as the sociological school of jurisprudence, emerged as a reaction to the perceived limitations inherent in formalist legal theories. This approach, notably pioneered by influential jurists such as Roscoe Pound, posits a fundamental shift in how we conceptualize the law. It contends that law is not an isolated, abstract entity but rather a reflection of the complex interplay of social forces and should therefore be analyzed as a dynamic social phenomenon (Smith, 2020). In this view, the law cannot be fully understood in isolation from the society it governs, and it is equally essential to consider how the law influences and is influenced by society at large.

A. Departure from Legal Formalism

One of the central tenets of sociological jurisprudence is its unequivocal departure from the rigid positivist viewpoint on law characteristic of legal formalism, which itself was greatly influenced by Christopher Columbus Langdell. Legal formalism promoted the idea that the law is a fixed, mechanical system governed exclusively by precedent and statutes, largely ignoring the societal context in which legal rules operate (Smith, 2018). In stark contrast, sociological jurisprudence emphasizes the intricate and ever-evolving relationship between the law and society. It asserts that legal rules should not be viewed in isolation but rather as elements that must adapt to societal needs and values (Smith, 2018). This perspective challenges the traditional notion that the law is an unchanging and autonomous entity, highlighting its interconnectedness with the broader social fabric.

B. Enhancing Our Understanding of “Law-in-Action”

Sociological jurisprudence provides a powerful lens through which to gain a more profound understanding of “law-in-action.” By closely examining how legal rules both influence and are influenced by society, it reveals the intricate web of connections between the legal system and the social order (Smith, 2019). This approach underscores the crucial role played by legal institutions in maintaining social cohesion and ensuring justice. It encourages us to consider not only the formal structure of the law but also the lived experiences of individuals and communities as they interact with the legal system. By taking into account societal dynamics, including cultural shifts and economic changes, sociological jurisprudence sheds light on the multifaceted and often nuanced practical implications of legal decisions, enriching our understanding of the law’s real-world impact.

III. Historical and Contemporary Examples

To provide a comprehensive illustration of the profound impact of legal realism and sociological jurisprudence, we can delve into three distinctive historical and contemporary cases that vividly showcase the practical relevance of these legal theories:

A. Historical Example: Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

The landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education stands as a paradigmatic historical example where legal realism came to the forefront. In this pivotal case, the Supreme Court of the United States played a transformative role in dismantling racial segregation in public schools. The decision to desegregate schools was not solely rooted in strict adherence to legal formalism; instead, it was profoundly influenced by the stark recognition of the grave harm inflicted by racial segregation on minority students. This judicial shift aligned closely with the fervent societal demands for civil rights, reflecting the dynamic interplay between legal realism and the evolving sociopolitical landscape of the time (Smith, 2018).

B. Contemporary Example: Marriage Equality (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015)

The legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges serves as a contemporary exemplar of how sociological jurisprudence continues to shape and guide legal decisions. In this pivotal case, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the fundamental right to marry to same-sex couples across the nation. The Court’s decision in favor of marriage equality was not a mere adherence to legal formalism or precedent; rather, it was a poignant acknowledgment of the shifting societal attitudes and evolving norms surrounding LGBTQ+ rights. This recognition underscored the dynamic nature of law as it mirrors and interacts with the ever-changing social landscape, highlighting the enduring relevance of sociological jurisprudence (Smith, 2020).

C. Contemporary Example: Environmental Regulations

Turning to the realm of contemporary environmental law, we find that legal realism and sociological jurisprudence continue to exert their influence, particularly in the development of environmentally conscious regulations. In response to the pressing concerns of climate change and environmental sustainability, legal theorists and policymakers have adopted a pragmatic approach that emphasizes the ecological impact of human activities. Regulations in this domain are not static but are shaped by the realization of the profound consequences of unchecked environmental degradation. Legal realism and sociological jurisprudence, in this context, underscore the vital importance of addressing environmental issues within the framework of evolving societal values and priorities (Smith, 2017).


Legal realism and sociological jurisprudence have significantly enriched our understanding of law and its effects on society. These approaches depart from legal formalism and the influence of Christopher Columbus Langdell by emphasizing the importance of societal context, practical implications, and the dynamic relationship between law and society. Through historical and contemporary examples, it becomes evident that these theories enhance our grasp of “law-in-action” by acknowledging that law is not a static set of rules but a reflection of evolving societal norms and values.