The Socratic Method

Virtually every law school class is based on the Socratic Method. This method uses questions and debate between individuals with different viewpoints to help everyone involved think critically and to highlight the different ideas among them. It is the reason that law school admissions committee’s work so hard to give you a diverse law school class. The method is a collaborative discussion between you, your law student classmates, and the law school professor. The goal of this discussion is for everyone involved to understand the issue more completely. The quality of the discussion depends on people sharing their own unique understanding and opinions about the issue.  The quality of your law school education depends, in part, on the contributions to class discussion by your classmates and professors. 

The Socratic Method requires a law student to understand the material before they arrive to the law school class. For this reason, some consider the Socratic Method to simply mean that you teach yourself. But, this is a much too simplistic view.

While it is true that you should come to your law school class with a basic understanding of the issues and principles that will be discussed, the aim of the Socratic Method is that you leave the class with an enhanced and more enlightened understanding of the material. The method teaches a law student to analyze legal problems, to think critically, to reason by analogy, and to consider the effect of the law on those subject to it. It requires the law student to articulate, develop, and defend positions that may have been at first based on their gut reaction to the question. It teaches law students to critically analyze the arguments they hear, and to assess their own ideas and thoughts in light of the new information or reasoning.

What should I expect in a law school class?

In the law school class, the professor will ask a question and call on students—often randomly—to answer the question. The professor might ask follow up questions or move on. Usually, the questions will get to the point where the law student’s opinion is given. At that point the law school professor will play Devil’s advocate, forcing the student to defend his or her position by addressing the arguments against it or flaws in reasoning. The questions might challenge an assumption, or propose a situation where the law student’s initial assertion seems to demand an exception. Sometimes, the Socratic Method is used to have law students discover legal principles on their own, through carefully-worded questions that encourage a particular train of thought. Many professors call on law students randomly because it forces all of the law students in the law school class to pay close attention so that they can contribute if selected.  Here is a video of a law school class where the Socratic Method is used by the professor to help the first year law students learn about a procedural rule:

The good news is that most of the time in law school there is either more than one correct answer or no clear answer at all. Law students who expect to leave their law school class with answers, are going to be disappointed. But, that’s not the point of the class discussion. The Socratic Method is about helping law students explore the nuances of complex issues so that they can develop the critical thinking skills that good attorneys have. Often this is accomplished by altering the facts of a particular case to explore how the result might have been different. The method highlights the fact that while the law is usually conscientiously made, it is nevertheless based on certain assumptions, values, and conclusions that are subject to legitimate argument and disagreement.

The reasoning skills that you learn through the Socratic Method will form the foundation to your law school education. The law is constantly evolving and it will certainly change over your career, but the skills that you will learn can be applied to any legal question you will encounter. It also will give you experience thinking on your feet and confidently communicating forcefully, respectably, and persuasively to large groups of people.