The Reality of the Socratic Method in Law School Classrooms: A Call to Preserve our Longstanding Tradition

Written by Oriana Carravetta, Albany Government Law Review Member


Fictional characters like Professor Kingsfield of The Paper Chase have contributed to an image of the quintessential law school professor who puts a student in the “hot seat” and delves into what seems like an intimidating and almost torturous line of inquiry.[1] This pedagogical technique is commonly known as the Socratic method: one of the defining characteristics of the American legal education system, almost universally used during the first year of law school.[2] At the crux of this method is a focus on having the students extract and explore legal theory for themselves.[3] It is often viewed as a coaching method that, when executed properly, assists to develop a student’s ability to think critically and present ideas in an effective manner.[4]

Without a doubt, this pedagogical technique puts an overwhelming amount of pressure on students to prepare well for class, think fast, and have no choice but to speak publicly.  According to the authors of Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, “the case-dialogue method is a potent form of learning-by-doing.  As such, it necessarily shapes the minds and dispositions of those who apprentice through it.”[5] The unfortunate reality though, is that the Socratic method has been losing its force over the last thirty years, as it has now been viewed more as a symbol of traditional legal education rather than a classroom technique.[6] American legal institutions are no longer placing any sense of value on understanding its own history.  That is to say, embracing history in its pedagogical practice is no longer viewed as an important tool in preserving historical continuity.[7]

There has been ongoing debate between the so-called “traditionalists”[8] and the “pragmatically oriented”[9] legal education reformers as to whether the Socratic method is effective, and if it should continue to be used as the primary teaching method in law school classrooms.[10] First, critics argue that students learn differently.  What works for one student may not necessarily work for another; hence, the results of using this dialogue-based tool are sporadic because it “emphasizes certain steps of the cognitive process while ignoring others . . . .”[11] Moreover, it does not provide students with feedback to correct their shortcomings in their attempt at a critical analysis.[12] Second, professors sometimes get carried away during the discourse and often will reprimand students (for lack of preparedness or for simply missing the point) in such a way that is both embarrassing and harsh.[13] The argument then, is that the improper use of the Socratic method can be psychologically abusive to students; the worry of being called on can become “incapacitating.”[14] Third, as stated in the Carnegie Foundation Report, is that the method focuses too much on cases and not enough on clients.[15] The “true work” of a lawyer has to do with solving the problem of clients and not legal theory, and hence the Socratic method is inefficient in teaching doctrinal rules.[16]

However, these arguments seem to highlight the ignominy of (i) the feeble student who cannot handle the pressures that are tied with first year law school, and (ii) the indifferent student who decided to go to law school for the wrong reasons.  A Harvard Law professor comments, “‘[m]odern sensibilities . . . make it much harder for classes to accept the pressure.  Students won’t tolerate it; a resentment develops.”[17] Simply put, modern society has become soft.  It seems that students who are utterly opposed to tough love by their professors are going to their administration furiously complaining about classroom tactics.

The reality is that “‘[n]o one has ever died because of the Socratic method . . .” and the added pressure is pivotal in getting used to what the profession is all about.[18] Thus, to disfavor a practice that has been respected for centuries, precisely because of its tenacity, would completely undermine the law school learning process and make it less rigorous.[19] Another Harvard Law professor reiterates that pure lecturing (which it seems these students would prefer) would mean “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. . . .It treats the student not as a man, but as a school boy reciting his lines.”[20] Law school has a reputation for being so difficult because the professor is not going to hold the student’s hand from start to finish; it is presumed that students already have acquired the skills necessary to adapt to a new world of academia.  It would be entirely elementary to expect the professor of higher education to adapt to every student’s individual needs.

In light of the argument that the Socratic method is inefficient because it teaches theory without any focus on “practical” skills necessary in advising clients, it seems this argument reflects the views of those students who attend law school as a default degree.[21] Ironically, it is becoming common that college graduates who don’t know what they want to “do with their lives,” are applying to law schools because they have a false perception that a Juris Doctor is a relatively easy degree obtain, which results in a good salary and instant status.[22] These students have little interest in practicing law; it seems rather, they simply want to learn black letter law, basic procedure, and what they need to know for the final exam.

If we were to accept the idea that the entire law school experience is about learning what is most practical in day-to-day lawyering, then “the study of law is really the study of judges and lawyers, and the apprenticeship model of law teaching is optimal: learn how to influence judges by watching legal proceedings, and whatever you learn (e.g. not to wear red neckties in court . . .)) is what you need to know.”[23] Learning theory before practice, by means of the Socratic method, is at the hallmark of the intellectual tradition of legal education.  It makes the law school classroom the starting point, as the challenging forum that turns the fresh young minds of first year students into sophisticated and empowered practitioners of today.  If law school only taught practical tactics in lawyering, with no theoretical or philosophical premise to conceptualize the historical underpinnings of what the law is today, law students may as well earn an online degree and call it a day.

Let’s not forget that law school is a three-year journey, the first year of which is strategically carved out for core classes that form the fundamental basis for the remainder of a successfully completed Juris Doctor.[24] To enforce the Socratic method to be utilized in first year classes in no way detracts from ones law school education.  There is plenty of time to acquire practical skills that are necessary in day-to-day lawyering in the subsequent two years.  Classes are available to students during their 2L and 3L years that offer the “essential practical skills” that reformers seem to be fixated on.[25] Moreover, to assert that the Socratic method in no way provides students with practical skills is wholly ignorant: it prepares students for trial, for dealing with the pressures of a hot appellate bench, or a hardcore trial judge, and even learning how to speak properly as an associate to a senior partner.[26]

Some legal scholars believe that just because the legal academic institution is hesitant to adopt “progressive” methods means that the Socratic method is “archaic” and devoid of any true significance.[27] This belief is alarming.  The Socratic method has been used for over centuries and there is a reason for it: the risk of being questioned invokes classroom participation in such a vicarious way that it explores the strengths and weaknesses of the student’s legal arguments.  These students are more apt to learning legal analysis by actually doing it, cold, with questions thrown at them rapid fire, strengthening their oral dialogue.[28] In essence, if a student finds the material to be so intellectually challenging that being questioned about it Socratically contributes to overtaxing psychological pressure, chances are, that student will have a hard time practicing law.  The reality? “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

[1] John Jay Osborn Jr., The Paper Chase (1970).

[2] Joseph A. Dickinson, Understanding the Socratic Method in Law School Teaching After the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers, 31 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 97, 104–05 (2009) (explaining that the professor calls on a student at random and begins a discourse with that student in front of the rest of the class, in the form of continuous questioning aimed at solving the legal problem at hand); See also, Orin S. Kerr, The Decline of the Socratic Method at Harvard, 78 Neb. L. Rev. 113, 132 (1999).

[3] Dickinson, supra note 2, at 104–05.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 107 (quoting William M. Sullivan et al., Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law (2007)).

[6] Kerr, supra note 2, at 114–16.

[7] Ryan Patrick Alford, How Do You Trim the Seamless Web?  Considering the Unintended Consequences of Pedagogical Alterations, 77 U. Cin. L. Rev. 1273, 1275 (2009) (explaining that there is a more historical rationale for this continuing tradition: the primary role of the Socratic method is that it derives principles of law from cases and “casuistry” on the basis of these holdings that are ten centuries old; It was initially developed during the eleventh century Renaissance and in turn, brought back scholasticism and Western legal tradition.)[7]

[8] See Kerr, supra note 2 (“Traditionalists” derive their style from the Socratic Method).

[9] Alford, supra note 7 (Pragmatically oriented groups are legal reformers who seek to move away from purely Socratic teaching).

[10] See Kerr, supra note 2.

[11] Benjamin V. Madison, III, The Elephant in Law School Classrooms: Overuse of The Socratic Method as an Obstacle to Teaching Modern Law Students, 85 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 293, 301 (2008).

[12] Id.

[13] Kerr, supra note 2, at 118.

[14] Id.

[15] Alford, supra note 7, at 1283.

[16] Kerr, supra note 2, at 119.

[17] Id. at 127.

[18] Id. at 127–28.

[19] Madison, supra note 11, at 303–04.  (Opponents of pure Socratic method teaching style believe that academia should shift away from Socratic style teaching, and move more toward purely lecture-based teaching, or using more fashionable teaching techniques (e.g. using maps, power points, in-class assignments, group work, handouts, presentations, and quizzes)).

[20] Alford, supra note 7, at 1319.

[21] James B. Levy, As a Last Resort, Ask the Students: What They Say Makes Someone an Effective Law Teacher, 58 Me. L. Rev. 49, 63–64 (2006).

[22] Id.

[23] Alford, supra note 7, at 1321.

[24] Core classes meaning: Contract Law, Federal Civil Procedure, Tort Law, Property Law, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Law.

[25] These classes include: negotiation, client counseling, advanced legal writing, trial advocacy, among others.  In addition, most law schools offer students an opportunity to work in pro-bono clinics and to do field placement work.  Such experience gives law students an opportunity to do “real life” lawyering and gain “hands on” experience under the supervision of an attorney or authorized staff person.

[26] Madison, supra note 11, at 304.

[27] Alfrod, supra note 7, at 1324–25.

[28] Kerr, supra note 2, at 116–17.


8 thoughts on “The Reality of the Socratic Method in Law School Classrooms: A Call to Preserve our Longstanding Tradition”

  1. The Socratic Method, as used by its namesake, was intended to teach people, not to ridicule them; which is, for the most part, what it seems to be used for in law schools. The idea behind the Socratic method as used by Socrates was that by guiding a student through the logic of an argument and having them make the connections between concepts on their own, they will derive pleasure from the learning process and will acquire knowledge in a more permanent manner than they would otherwise. Unfortunately, the method used in law schools tends to be nothing like this.

  2. […] method article I linked to last week: Oriana Carravetta, Albany Government Law Review Fireplace, The Reality of the Socratic Method in Law School Classrooms: A Call to Preserve our Longstanding Tra…. With footnotes, as befits a law […]

  3. Right now I am in my 3rd year of law school. I’ve gone to two different law schools and have had the whole spectrum of professors. Speaking from the receiving end of The Method, the classes where I’ve learned the most and it appeared my classmates learned the most, were the ones where Socratic Method was NOT the primary tool for teaching.

    Most classes I was in where Socratic was the primary teaching method, we were all lost and confused at the end of class. The office hours sign up sheets were constantly all filled up and on more than one occasion students would be racing each other to the secretary’s desk to sign up for office hours before all the slots were filled. I can just imagine the number of accidental deaths if Driver’s Ed was taught Socraticly. I’ve seen instances of students asking questions only for the professor to pose that same question back to them. If Socratic Method was so effective then why the weekly stampede to the secretary’s desk? If I were to teach someone how to operate a firearm that way, I’d be looking at a negligence suit, and at worse a wrongful death suit.

    Instead what I’ve found most effective were professors who would lecture and explain, and then use Socratic Method, not to teach, but to test if students were understanding the material. A Criminal Law professor I had would explain all the elements of a crime, and think of a hypothetical and call on students and ask if all the elements of the crime were present, and change some facts along the way. He could tell, and we could tell, if we were understanding the material. Another professor I for Immigration Law had took a conversational tone and would lecture and in the middle of lecture ask a student their opinion on a legal matter and have a brief exchange with the student, where he would also answer the student’s questions. In that way I would say it is close to how Socrates operated.

    I’ve sat though a torts class taught though Socratic Method and could not for all my effort understand Proximate Cause. Flunked the class, subsequently transfered schools and had to take Torts 1 again. This professor lectured and explained in detail all the parts of Proximate Cause and how the fit together. Got the 3rd highest score in the class, and I feel pretty confident in explaining Proximate Cause to someone. Torts 2, I ended up getting the highest score in the class, and now I’m confident and comfortable explaining or discussing those issues with someone. I went from a failing student to getting the top score, what happened? I went from a professor who was hard core into Socratic Method, to one who just got to the chase and laid out the topic bare and explained what it all meant and how it all fit together. Yes we would still recite cases, and he would ask us what the case stood for, but that was the extent of it.

    Based on my experiences and observations of my classmates, when students understand the material they’re more comfortable discussing it, and are less likely to duck down and hide behind their laptop monitors. Simply put I’ve seen students more comfortable with engaging in class when the professor has explained the material, than when all the professor really does is ask questions that we don’t know the answer to.

    Also in these days when more and more students use laptops for note taking, if a professor hides the ball too long, some students will look up the issue online themselves (which defeats the purpose of Socratic Method), while others stop caring about the ball altogether and just log onto Facebook.

    Like any tool, Socratic Method has a right way and a wrong way to use it. You wouldn’t use a jackhammer to assemble a book shelf from Ikea. Using it as a primary teaching method, as what a lot of law professors like to do, instead of as a supplement to lecturing, I would say is the wrong way to use Socratic Method, akin to using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure it might work but it’s simply the wrong tool for the job.

    For a lot of students I notice, it’s not that they can’t stand the heat, it’s that they don’t know how to work the appliances and tools in the kitchen. They don’t know to use flour as a thickener for stew, they don’t know that ribs should be slow cooked to make them come out tender and not hard and dry. They don’t know not to put salt on meat before you cook because it drys out the meat. You wouldn’t have someone prepare a meal without explaining what all the stuff in the kitchen is for, so why would you ask students if there was sufficient consideration if you never bothered to explain a bargained-for exchange?

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