Guide to the Socratic Method

The Socratic method and law school

What it is and how it’s used in law school classrooms

The Socratic method strikes fear in the hearts of many new law students. But, the Socratic method has its benefits, and there are ways to prepare for it.
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If you're contemplating law school, you've probably heard (or been warned) about the Socratic method.

But what exactly is the Socratic method? Is its sole purpose to torture and terrify law students? Is there some way to prepare for it?

Let's take a look.

What's the Socratic method?

Socrates was a Greek philosopher who sought to get to the heart of his students' views by asking questions until contradictions were exposed. This became known as the “Socratic method.”

In law school, some professors use the Socratic method to explore difficult legal concepts and principles.

The precise form of questioning varies significantly among professors.

On one end of the spectrum, a professor randomly chooses a single student for the entire class period and assails them with rapid-fire questions intended to trip them up and poke holes in their arguments.

On the other end of the spectrum, a professor casually engages a handful of students in an effort to explore legal principles through a series of questions.

In this latter example, the Socratic method comes across as less a tool of intimidation and more a tool of collaborative learning. 

In either case, the inquiry usually begins with relatively straightforward questions about a case. For example, the professor might ask the student to identify:

  • The parties
  • The facts of the case
  • The issues
  • The procedural posture
  • The decision
  • The reasoning behind the decision

The questions then become less straightforward and the student is often asked to analyze the case in light of other cases read during the course of the semester.

Though you're almost guaranteed to encounter the Socratic method at some point during law school, not all professors choose to use it. What's more, some professors choose only to use it with their first-year students.

What's the purpose of the Socratic method?

The Socratic method has 3 primary purposes:

First, the Socratic method is used to develop critical thinking skills. By asking a series of pointed questions intended to expose contradictions and weaknesses in an argument, students learn to think about cases more deeply.

As the late professor Elizabeth Garrett explained:

“We could lecture students about legal reasoning, but those of us who use the Socratic Method prefer to foster as much active learning as possible. Just as a professor who immediately answers her students' questions loses an opportunity to help them discover the answers on their own, the professor who dispenses legal principles in classroom soliloquies will reduce students' opportunities to engage in independent critical thinking that can lead them to a deeper understanding.”

Second, the Socratic method prepares students to think on their feet and respond to the sort of rapid-fire questioning they can expect from judges.

Third, since the Socratic method involves calling on students without giving them prior notice, this forces all students to prepare for class and pay attention during class discussion knowing they could be called upon at any moment.

How can you prepare for the Socratic method?

If you don't want to look foolish in the classroom, or you just want to reduce some of the anxiety associated with the Socratic method, you must prepare accordingly.

First, you should complete all the reading for every class. Yes, we know — it's a lot. But better to be prepared.

Second, you should brief all your cases. Briefing is a way of identifying and organizing the various components of a case opinion, including the elements your profession may ask you to identify:

  • The parties
  • The facts of the case
  • The issues
  • The procedural posture
  • The decision
  • The reasoning behind the decision

Some students like to write short (1–3 sentences) summaries for each component. Other students prefer to use different colored highlighters to mark the different sections. Whatever your method, the point is to put yourself in a position where you can easily identify the sections while being asked about them.

Enjuris tip: Find out more tips on how to become a top law student.

In addition, you'll want to spend some time thinking about the case (not just reading it). It's a safe bet that your professor will have you compare and contrast the case with other cases you've read in your class. By thinking about how the case fits into the larger picture before class, you can usually get some idea of where your professor's line of questioning is likely to lead.

The Socratic method gives most law students anxiety, but it doesn't have to. By being prepared and understanding the purpose behind the learning tool, you might even come to appreciate the Socratic method.

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