The Socratic Method:
Beware of this time-honored, pointless part of law school!

The Socratic method is perhaps one of the most famous, and pointless, aspects of the law school experience.

In short, the socratic method works hand in hand with the case method. You can't have one without the other. That is, in most U.S. law schools, professors ask law students to read a number of cases from a gigantic casebook before class. The case book only contains excerpts of cases and questions but very little explanation as to what is going on, or what the actual applicable legal rules are. You, Mr. or Ms. Law Student, are supposed to figure that out for yourself.

In class, the professors select certain students to answer questions about the cases:

  • Sometimes you are asked simply to recite certian facts facts of the case. Famously in The Paper Chase (affiliate link), one of the early lines is: "Mr. Haaaart! Please give us the facts of Hawkins v. McGeeeeee...."
  • Sometimes they ask you if you think a case was rightly decided in light of previous cases that you also read.
  • Sometimes you are asked hypothetical questions that alter one or more of the facts in a given case to determine whether you, as the judge, would have decided the case differently.

The theory is that in this process, you will teach yourself the law and how to apply it. I guess.

I am skeptical that this is actually what happens in practice.

Let's take a step back and talk history. Just in case you think there is a good reason for the Socratic Method, there isn't. It was invented at Harvard Law School in the late 1800s and was quickly adopted by all other law schools in the U.S.

The book Planet Law School has an excellent history of the dubious background of this practice. In short, a professor who was a crappy lawyer and professor managed to convince the President of Harvard University to adopt the Socratic Method, thus traumatizing generation after generation of American law students.

Apparently, law professors around the country thought that it was just too easy to tell law students what the laws were and how they worked.

I have always been skeptical of this method. For one, in most other countries, law students seem perfectly happy and well-trained without the socratic method. I believe that the U.S. is the only country in which the Socratic method is used in legal education. In other countries--including the United Kingdom -- there are lectures in which the professors actually explain laws and how they work. Imagine that!

At its best, the Socratic method is used by a professor to force her students to come up with good arguments on the spot both for and against a position. This would be awesome legal training if you were forced to this every day in every class. But you're not; you may got called on once or twice per class per semester.

At its worst, in the hands of other professors (most of them), it is a clumsy tool that the professor uses to simply pass the time, something akin to improvisational jazz.

Here is what you really need to know about the Socratic Method:

  • The Socratic method and your in-class performance is almost meaningless. So don't spend time worrying about it. Remember that how you do on your law school exam is usually 100% of your grade. So your time is best prepared spent pursuing activities that make it more likely that you will get an A. Reading and re-reading the cases in anticipation of being called on in class are not a good means to get an A."

  • Accordingly, don't overprepare for class because of it. Really, it's not a big deal. This is super important advice: please do not overprepare for class or read the cases more than once. I know of many students, both my classmates and my tutoring students, who over-prepared for every class because they were afraid of looking stupid in class. No harm in being prepared, right? Wrong. Fear of the Socratic method caused these ill-fated students to lose precious time by, for instance,writing law school case briefs and to reading and re-reading cases to master details that ultimately do not matter on the final exam. You only have so much time; and not every activity helps you do well on your exams equally. So don't spend it over-reading or preparing your case work for class.

  • There is no relationship between how you do in class and how you do on your exam. One of the funniest things about law school is that there is no relationship between how good your in-class, on-your-feet answers are and your ability to write a good law school exam. I had data on this. My whole first year, I kept an Excel spreadsheet showing how many times people spoke in class. Some loudmouths did badly their first semester -- at least, they stopped talking entirely second semesters. Others who talked too much did well, grade-wise. And of course some who were silent did well, and others who you never heard from did not.

    (By the way, I proved that some people spoke too much with statistical significance, in the sense that these two standard deviations from the class mean in terms of how often they spoke when not called on by the professor.

  • The Socratic method is not even a real socratic dialogue. In a true Socratic dialogue, the teacher never makes statements and only asks questions. Practically no law professor, thankfully, actually adopts this approach anymore. Usually you get mixed bits of lecture with mandatory Socratic method drilling, if for no other reason than it is somewhat a rite of passage in law school. Or, simply, Tradition! as they say in Fiddler on the Roof.

  • Rare professors do give credit for good answers, but it isn't worth enough to kill yourself preparing for class every day. Really, don't do it. At best, professors will bump your grade up half a grade (from a B to a B+, or a B+ to an A-) if your participation was good in class. But if you don't do pretty well on the exam in the first place (i.e., you should be at least in B+ territory), it isn't worth sacrificing time better spent on practice exams, outlining and other more effective things just to sound good in class.

  • You can't win at the Socratic Method. Let's say you give the perfect answer right away, everything that the professor believed about the case he is asking you about. Think that he will just give up and stop asking questions? Nope. He is going to keep asking questions, coming up with new hypotheticals or asking you different questions, because that was his plan for the day. It is -- for many bad professors -- a way to simply fill the time. He is going to make this about the journey and not the destination. Even though you will ultimately be tested on the destination and not the journey.

  • Gunner bingo is played because of people who misunderstand the Socratic Method. Gunner Bingo is a very old law school game in which people who talk to much become part of a "bingo" card of the vast, silent majority of law students. Once too many gunners, as they are known, talk too many time, a lucky winner will raise his or her hand and use a code word in a sentence that all other players recognize as "bingo."

In short: don't be that person who is the subject of Gunner Bingo. The advice to the submarine captain is also good advice for you, the law student: Run silent and run deep. Focus on the exam, and don't worry about sounding like a fool in class.

Return from the Socratic Method to Prepare for Law School.

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Manny Recommends:

Here are my personal recommendations for products and services that I have reviewed that can improve your results in law school.  This list is short because I include only my top picks.  

LARRY LAW LAW - Get top grades in law school.
Planet Law School - The best book on understanding the law school game.

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