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.
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.
of the Socratic Method list several positive effects:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.’ ”
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.”
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.
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