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]

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