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The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is a long-standing (since around 400 BC when its namesake, Socrates, first began to utilize it in philosophical discussions) argumentative technique where an individual attempts to determine any weaknesses in a given argument or opinion by asking a series of pointed questions to the proponent of the argument. The idea is that only a well-constructed argument can withstand this intense questioning without exhibiting noticeable flaws or inconsistencies.

How is the Socratic Method Used in Law School?

The Socratic Method as it is currently employed in law schools is the product of developments over 100 years ago at Harvard Law School, and is a frequently encountered teaching technique in today’s law school courses. In classes where the Socratic Method is used, the professor will call on a student to summarize a case from an assigned reading. The student’s summary is expected to include the details of the case, as well as the relevant legal principles associated with the case. Once the student has given his or her best summation, the professor typically proceeds to thoroughly question the student in the hopes of eliciting new insights into the case at hand, or exposing any weak points in the student’s understanding of the case. Often this questioning includes manipulating the circumstances of the case and the legal principles associated with it to change the way the case can be resolved and to demonstrate to the rest of the class that when variables in a case are altered it can dramatically change the resolution of the case and how the resolution is reached.

Why is the Socratic Method still in use?

Proponents of the Socratic Method list several positive effects:

Benefits while in law school:

  • The constant possibility of being called on in class causes students to closely follow the professor and the class discussion.
  • The fear of being called on in class motivates many students to study harder.
  • If the Socratic Method is used properly, students will be able to apply universal legal principles to different scenarios on exams. When a professor changes the variables in a case, he or she does not do this for personal enjoyment; it is done so the student will understand the legal principles that underlie the case. Law exams rarely test the details of specific cases, focusing instead on hypothetical scenarios that will require students to apply their working knowledge of legal principles to these simulations.

Legal Career Benefits:

  • Teaches law students to think on their feet, a skill necessary for almost all areas of post-graduate work, especially in open court.
  • Breaks down many students’ fear of speaking in front of large groups.
  • Throughout a lawyer’s career, the law will change and evolve from what it was when he or she graduated from law school; thus, the Socratic Method teaching style gives students the reasoning ability to understand paradigm shifts in the field of law, and thereby adapt their knowledge and skills to future applications.

Arguments against the Socratic Method

While the Socratic Method has many supporters, there is also a sizeable contingent of critics who find its use unnecessarily distracting and occasionally abusive. Detractors list several drawbacks to using the Socratic Method in classes:

  • A common complaint of students in Socratic Method classes is that a professor who does not use the method properly will often fail to adequately demonstrate to students which legal principles are at issue. By prompting students to answer questions without making the intent of the questions clear, these professors never clearly demonstrate the points they are trying to make, and the result is confusion.
  • The constant questioning of the Socratic Method and the tendency to focus on a single student can feel like a personal attack, and many students are humiliated by the experience.
  • Many students graduate from law schools that heavily depend on the Socratic Method (usually poorly taught), and realize that they have learned very little about specific laws and statutes pertaining to the field in which they wish to practice; at that point they must independently learn all the necessary laws and statutes to pass the bar exam.

Student Views

The view of many law students is that if done properly the Socratic Method is very useful and even preferable to lecture or other teaching styles in many instances. Here are two quotes from some of our LSAT instructors who have personal experience with the Socratic Method in law school:

“The Socratic Method, if done right, can make a dull topic interesting. If done wrong, it can feel like a game of ‘poke out my eye with a sharp stick.’ ”

“The hard-core Socratic-method-nutcases, the professors who model their approach on the movie ‘Paper Chase,’ where they call on one person for a single class period and then play ‘hide the ball’ for that class period seemed significantly less effective. The fear of being called on would cause significant time to be wasted in learning the minute details of each case. The problem with this is that law school exams don't care about the details of any single case.”

How can you prepare for the Socratic Method?

Regardless of your view on the Socratic Method, chances are extremely high that you will come across it at some point in law school; it seems the best way to prepare, aside from a specific prep course, is to do all of your pre-class reading and assume that you can and will be called upon to answer questions.