For the uninitiated: cold calls are a fact of the law student life. It’s a tool of law professors who subscribe to the Socratic method. The idea is this: professors ask questions of one student, follow up, change the facts, or push back, all in an effort to help develop the critical thinking skills of aspiring lawyers. When you get cold called, that means the professor has chosen you, without advance warning, to engage in such an exercise.
Professors often stress that cold calls are not intended to be intimidating or stressful. Indeed, some professors are very kind about cold calling. They do not hide the ball, but give hints or encourage students to draw on their intuition, rather than try to get to one correct answer. I’ve also seen professors use a modified system—panels—where a group of students are put on notice that they may be called in a given class. This helps alleviate the stress of not knowing when you will be called on.
Cold calls often made students feel bad. Why is that? For starters, the questions asked are often complex, not straightforward. There are usually good arguments from different perspectives. Rarely is there a right answer. So it can be difficult to craft a sophisticated analysis on the spot, without time to process all the different variables. On top of this, professors are usually seeking a specific answer. They ask each question with a goal in mind, whether to make a policy point or to draw out a critical takeaway from a case. I have often observed my classmates make great points in response to a question, but the professor only develops one idea that he or she is interested in. This can feel frustrating, especially when the professor’s point is very obscure. Another source of vexation is that questions are rarely directly answerable using the reading assignments. Professors may ask about the case facts or holding, but only to kick off a deeper discussion. A student can do everything right—closely read the materials, mark up key passages, or create case briefs—but still feel like he or she “bombed” the cold call.
Besides understanding why the cold call is often inherently difficult, how do you cope in the aftermath of a “bad” cold call? Here are my thoughts:
1. Know that just because you feel “bad” about the cold call doesn’t mean it actually went badly
My understanding of the difference between perception and reality has drastically heightened since becoming a law student. In the context of cold calls, I want to fight the perception that not saying the “right” answer, the one that the professor wants, means that the cold call went poorly. In fact, I believe that students making points that the professor didn’t think of are incredibly valuable. They have allowed me to learn about my classmates’ life experiences and perspectives. The legal profession can always benefit from more diverse thoughts, even when they seem out-of-the-box compared to the traditional way of things.
2. Take comfort in knowing that no one will remember how you did
This relates to my last point. How you see an issue is different from how others do. And when it comes to cold calling, you will be more critical of your performance than your professor, your classmates, or anyone else in the room. During this rare shot to prove yourself, of course you will want to do your best. And in hindsight, there will be things you wished you had done better. But often you will be the only one dwelling on it. Your professor has used your cold call to advance his or her teaching, and your classmates are just happy to take a break from the challenging material in class. I often hear people (even law professors) recall exactly what topic or case they were cold called on, but I guarantee that those in the same room have no recollection.
3. Give yourself as much as grace as you would extend others
In the first weeks of 1L year, after my first cold call, a woman in my section, whom I didn’t know very well, came up to me. “Tiffany, you did such a great job with the cold call!” I was stunned for a bit. Her feelings were the opposite of mine. In the moment, I was revisiting the back-and-forth in my head and thinking about how I should have said more, and worded what I said differently. Frankly, I was trying to duck out of the classroom as soon as possible. My classmate’s words were so kind and comforting, and it make me realize the gap between perception and reality that I discussed earlier. Ever since, I have tried to pass this act of kindness forward, whether catching someone after class, sending a text, or in the current times, sending a zoom private message, in order to send a little love and encouragement to a classmate post cold call. So, give your support to a friend or classmate who had just been called on, and do the same for yourself when it comes time after your own cold call. Tell yourself “good job!” or treat yourself to your favorite meal, activity—whatever makes you happy. You deserve it!
Whether you are reading this in anticipation of a cold call, or reading this after a cold call, I hope you remember to be kind to yourself and your classmates during this process. Law school is already stressful enough. Also, cold calls are not a part of your grade, and do not reflect your potential to be a great legal advocate!
To learn about some strategies for surviving cold calls, check out this blog post. And to read about how to prepare for a class as a 1L, check out this post. Finally, this article discusses one author’s perspective on learning to love the Socratic method.
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