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An intimidating professor calls on a terrified student and asks a mind-boggling question. As the entire class looks on, the student manages to squeak out an answer. The professor, unimpressed, responds with another question. And so it goes, until the professor impassively turns to the next victim, leaving the first student exhausted and the class utterly confused.
This is the popular image of the Socratic method – and there is much truth to it. Here, we’ll demystify this law school rite of passage and help you face it with confidence.
Ancient Origin, Modern Application
The Socratic method originated in ancient Greece. In its modern law school incarnation, it is a system of questioning designed to elicit answers that lead to insight or a conclusion. Through Socratic dialogue, the professor challenges a student’s premises, assumptions, and understanding of the law. This modern use is consistent with the ancient idea of asking probing questions to explore difficult concepts and interpret the meaning of the text.
Use of the Socratic method in law school dates to the dawn of the case method, pioneered by Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School from 1870-95. Langdell realized that studying cases, both real and hypothetical, helped students hone their reasoning abilities and practice the crucial skill of applying the law to new fact patterns. The Socratic method is a perfect companion to the case method. Cases don’t always yield their meaning easily; Socratic discussion probes the meaning of a case and places that case in relation to others as they elucidate the development of the law.
What Should You Expect?
Professors have different strategies for calling on students. Some do so randomly, while others use a seating chart or roster to keep track of who has been called on and who has not, especially in first-year classes. Many professors will call on a student without warning; this encourages class preparation by everyone. Others may place certain students “on call,” giving them notice that they will be grilled on a particular day and that they must be prepared to discuss specific cases. In upper-level classes, it is more common for professors to engage volunteers.
The amount of time spent in dialogue with a single student may vary considerably. Some professors call on as few as two students per class – that means each one may be in the hot seat for half the class period. Others move on more quickly, after only a few questions.
Professors vary in their willingness to allow unprepared students to “pass.” The best approach is to be prepared for class every day. If you know you won’t be prepared for a good reason, such as serious illness or a true emergency, email your professor in advance.
How Should You Prepare?
Pay attention to the types of questions your professor asks so you can be prepared to answer similar questions. Here are some typical introductory questions:
- What is the issue?
- Briefly state the facts.
- What is the holding?
- What is the court’s rationale?
- Does this case change the rule from preceding cases?
- What are the policy implications of this case?
- Would the outcome be the same if [specific fact] were different? Why?
Of course, each of these questions would be subjected to intensive follow-up questioning designed to probe the validity of the answer and explore the boundaries of the rule. Your professor may also posit a new set of facts and ask you to apply the rule. Another approach is to systematically tweak the facts, pushing the analysis to its limits. For example, if the rule in a case requires action within a “reasonable time,” and the court finds 10 days to be reasonable, when does a time period become unreasonably long? Fifteen days? Thirty? Why?
The list of questions above should make one method of preparation obvious: case briefing. Whether you write out a brief, use the book-briefing method, or use some other form of note taking, it is imperative that you read and understand the case. Ideally, you will be able to refer to your notes quickly and accurately to support your answers in class.
How Should You Take Notes?
You may be tempted to transcribe the class discussion, noting every question and answer. Fight this temptation. Listen actively and try to distinguish what is important from what is not. A skillful professor will lead the discussion to the conclusion she wants to reach, and should make it clear. Note the professor’s reaction to student answers, which should help you gauge whether the student is on the right path. Review your notes after class and try to determine the key points, such as rules, policy arguments, and any change from preceding law.
If you prepare for class and maintain a positive attitude, you can survive the Socratic method!
More About the Socratic Method
Want to learn more about the Socratic Method before classes start? Check out this podcast episode:
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