Learning to Love the Socratic Method

Something about the socratic method for GGPlease welcome back guest writer John Passmore to talk about how to learn to love an aspect of law school which is certainly not everyone’s favorite – the Socratic method.

The Socratic method is a unique and, for many, a frightening aspect of law school. It can be one of the toughest parts of transitioning from undergraduate to law school life. An introvert myself, the idea of the cold-call (being unexpectedly called on and peppered with questions by the professor) terrified me well into my 1L year. But later in law school I came to truly appreciate the Socratic method. It makes you engage the material in a deeper way. By actively participating as the professor builds concepts through questions and answers, you absorb the material in a way you never would through passively listening to a lecture. You may never love a class with a tough professor who employs a strict form of the Socratic method, but if you can at least come to appreciate the method, you can move beyond fear and reap some of the benefits that it offers.

The Socratic method can take many forms, but Black’s Law Dictionary defines Socratic method as follows:

A technique of philosophical discussion—and of law school instruction—by which the questioner (a law professor) questions one or more followers (the law students), building on each answer with another question, esp. an analogy incorporating the answer. [The] method … forces law students to think through issues rationally and deductively—a skill required in the practice of law. Most law professors who employ this method call on students randomly, an approach designed to teach students to think quickly, without stage fright.

Black’s Law 1518 (9th ed. 2009).

Let’s look at each piece of this definition and attempt to draw out some of the Socratic method’s redeeming values.

Philosophical Discussion

Who doesn’t love a philosophical discussion? If you are going to law school, odds are good that you like a good discussion and have at least a passing interest in some sort of philosophy. Part of appreciating the Socratic method is leaving behind the undergraduate mindset of always asking, “Is this going to be on the test?” Embrace the discussion, and you will learn the material. Legal concepts are dynamic and black-and-white answers are rare. Think of the Socratic method as just a big discussion group with the happy byproduct being that you are learning new and challenging material along the way.

Questioner (a Law Professor) and Followers (the Law Students)

The “questioner” in your law school class will be your professor. No two professors execute the Socratic method the same way. Ask around before you even start a class to find out what types of questions your professor asks and how discussions usually progress. Once you get to know your law professor, you will have a sense of his or her interests and concerns. Even if the questions are tough, you will begin to expect what questions are coming and be able to prepare for them.

The “followers” are all of the law students in your class. You are not alone. Remember that the Socratic method is a challenge for everyone, and it is supposed to be. Part of adjusting to law school is appreciating the fact that you are just one part of the discussion. You may not always have the “right” answer, but everyone contributes to the discussion. Law school can be competitive, but keep in mind that in terms of the Socratic method, most professors care more about the class learning as a whole than about your individual performance. Prepare, come ready to contribute, and then try to relax and be a good “follower.”

Think through Issues Rationally and Deductively

The Socratic method forces you to think. It is not like undergrad where you could just passively absorb material. While this can make for an exhausting class period, it pays big dividends in the end. The many legal concepts you cover in any given class are too complex to learn by yourself at the end of the semester—even for the best pre-exam crammer. If you embrace it, the Socratic method forces you to learn in the moment, rather than taking notes and learning later. You will still need notes and outlines and study guides, but you cannot replace engaging the material and thinking through issues rationally and deductively as the semester progresses.

Skill required in the Practice of Law

It may be uncomfortable at first, but answering complex questions verbally is actually a legal practice skill. Legal education is often attacked for not preparing practice-ready attorneys, but the Socratic method offers you the chance to hone your ability to articulate legal concepts. Keep in mind that sooner rather than later you will be using this very skill before colleagues and judges as a practicing attorney, so take advantage of the opportunity to practice.

Call on Students Randomly

Even if your professor doesn’t call on students completely randomly—some go up and down the seating chart—part of the stress of the Socratic method comes from the lack of control and the waiting. Try to eliminate these anxieties by answering every question in your head. If you treat every question like it is your question, you will stay engaged and be ready for anything. You can’t control when you are called on, but you can control your stress levels by staying constantly ready to answer.

Designed to Teach Students to Think Quickly, Without Stage Fright

I was surprised to see that stage fright was right in the definition of Socratic method. Take solace in the fact that it is not just you. Stage fright is a real enough part of the Socratic method to include it in the definition. With time and practice, you will become more comfortable when the law school class spotlight shines on you.

Try to find the good in the Socratic method. Learning to love the method, rather than being consumed by fear of it, really can help you to manage your day-to-day law school stress and improve your academic performance.

Good luck on your next cold call!


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About John Passmore

John Passmore is an assistant managing legal editor in Houston, Texas. He received his B.A. from Texas A&M University and his J.D. from The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law.

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