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Student Essentials

Learning How to Think with the Socratic Method

Gus Kostopoulos

Learning How to Think with the Socratic Method

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Many law students have a story about the first time they experienced the Socratic Method. Regardless of whether the student was the target of a professor’s line of questioning or if they were merely witness to another student’s experience, the stories tend to strike fear into the hearts of prospective 1Ls.

The Socratic Method is a tried-and-true technique law professors use to help develop skills that can be crucial in the legal field. This is especially true for students who are interested in work that required on-your-feet thinking – such as litigation or negotiation. Despite its tough reputation, the Socratic Method is an important part of the law school experience. Understanding why professors use it and how you can prepare for that fateful day when you find yourself at the end of a line of questions in class can make a world of difference in how you handle yourself.

Importance of the Socratic Method

The Socratic Method has been used for decades. Most prospective law students associate the Socratic Method with the film The Paper Chase. Fortunately, most showdowns in the classroom aren’t as tough as the film would lead students to believe. In reality, professors do not use the Socratic Method to humiliate or embarrass law students. Rather, professors use the Socratic Method to stimulate and develop critical thinking. The questions are designed to make the student think on his or her feet and to work through issues he or she may not have seen.

When it comes to the law answers are rarely presented in black and white. Lawyers need to be able to identify issues and argue both sides of an issue. The Socratic Method forces students to really analyze the issues in a case and, at times, defend a position they may not personally believe is right. The ability to spot and argue both sides of an issue is a skill that can only be mastered with practice. Professors use the Socratic Method to help students get this practice in before they set foot into the professional world. The more a student can adapt and think on their feet, the better prepared they will be to tackle the curveballs and legally gray areas they are challenged to solve.

Basics of the Socratic Method

 So, what happens when you’re subjected to the Socratic Method of questioning?

  1. Generally, professors will cold-call a person at random and ask them to summarize a case that had been assigned reading. The student should be able to recite a brief summary of the facts, explain the issue the case presents, as well as the court’s holding and rationale.
  2. The professor will ask questions based on the answers he or she is given. These follow-up questions will often challenge the answers given by the student, requiring a different analysis or explanation. These questions are designed to show the student arguments that could feasibly be made against often rigid answers. Law is often a gray area. The professor’s questions are designed to highlight the many ways in which an argument could be framed.
  3. Students may be asked if they agree or disagree with the holding, and why. The student may be asked to explain their rationales or point out why they think the court was right or wrong.
  4. In many cases, professors may pose slightly different facts that could significantly alter the case. In doing this, the professor may ask the student to apply their thinking – or the court’s rationale – to the new facts.

Preparing for the Socratic Method of Questioning

If you’ve embraced the rationale behind the Socratic Method, all that is left is to prepare for class. If you’re in law school being cold-called on is inevitable. Professors tend to work from a course registry to keep track of the students on which they’ve called, While volunteering to answer questions may help to keep the Socratic Method at bay temporarily, if you are a 1L student your time for questioning will arrive. Since most undergraduate institutions do not use the Socratic Method it is a learning experience and can be uncomfortable the first and/or second time around. However, preparing for class can help to make the process easier to handle. Here are a few suggestions to help you prepare for – and handle – the Socratic Method.

  1. Do the assigned reading and brief the cases. This cannot be emphasized enough. If you don’t do the reading you can’t answer the questions. If you’re the lucky student tasked with explaining a case and answering questions you’ll want to have good notes to rely on. Use bullet points, highlight, bold, or underline to make the important information stand out and easily accessible. The better your notes, the better you’ll be able to answer the questions.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Professors aren’t trying to embarrass you and your peers aren’t going to laugh at you. The good thing about the Socratic Method – at least for the students – is that everyone will get their turn in the hot seat. As long as you are prepared – which means you’ve read and at least attempted to brief the assigned cases – your peers will be sympathetic.
  3. A wrong answer is better than no answer at all, so don’t be afraid to take a shot. Your professor will help lead you during the line of questioning. The point of the Socratic Method is to help you gain a new skill. This can take time.