Ursula Furi-Perry Esq.

Ms. Prof: Socratic? So Ineffective!

Admittedly, I have some beef with the Socratic method. 

For starters, “Researchers…cite the use of the Socratic method in the classroom and the faculty's emphasis on linear thinking at the expense of student creativity and personal values,” write Todd David Peterson and Elizabeth Waters Peterson in their article, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology. “Others have found that law school fosters certain personality traits in its students that can lead to unhappiness, such as defensiveness and pessimism.” See 9 Yale J. Health Pol'y, L. & Ethics 357  

What could be worse in promoting defensiveness and pessimism than pitting student against professor in an often adversarial setting? And what law student or law grad doesn’t have a story about some unpleasant experience with the Socratic method? (I still remember the demoralizing experience in one class – while I was nearly six months pregnant – when the professor had me stand for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES, badgering me with the most particular questions about TWO PARAGRAPHS in a case. Not only do I not remember what she asked or what I answered, I don’t even remember what case I was briefing, let alone what the case stood for or what law I was supposed to cull from it. The demoralizing part of the experience, however, stays with me.) 

In fact, some say that the Socratic method adversely affects minorities and women law students in particular. In an article titled The Problem Method: No Simple Solution, author Shirley Lung writes that “For women, rates of classroom participation are lower than for men because the Socratic method ‘makes them feel strange, alienated, and 'delegitimized."' See 45 Willamette L.Rev. 723. Interestingly, Lung notes that women are also excluded from law school informal learning networks and that on average, men receive better grades than women do throughout all three years of law school. 

As some suggest, students find the Socratic method to be not only crushing to their confidence, but also an ineffective learning tool. “Student reactions to the Socratic method suggest that the traditional law school class adversely affects student self-confidence, gender disparities, interest in the subject matter, and even the relationship between the students and the educational experience. It is also noted that the design of the Socratic method limits the range of skills it engenders, most notably due to the lack of participation by students not engaged in the particular dialogue” notes Keith Hirokawa in an article called Critical Enculturation: Using Problems to Teach Law, 2 Drexel L. Rev. 1.  

Indeed, the real issue behind the Socratic method, to me, isn’t necessarily its adverse effect on a student’s law school experience—the real issue is its adverse effect on the end result: the student’s understanding and knowledge of law needed to successfully pass the bar exam and enter law practice. As used by most law professors, the Socratic method is simply not effective and efficient enough at teaching students the kinds of things that students want and need to learn. Take my personal experience above, which taught me absolutely nothing—that feeling seems to be prevalent among many law students. Supposedly, one hallmark of the Socratic method is that it gives no “right” or “clear” answers to the questions posed by the professor, yet students are expected to have some answers – whether it’s a definition of consideration or the elements of negligence – when the time comes to take exams, not to mention the bar. So, unless the professor sprinkles in a healthy dose of lectures or exercises to teach black letter law, the student is left to her own devices to figure out what she is supposed to know.  

Proponents of the Socratic method say it’s a great tool for honing analytical skills, engaging in context-based learning of the law, and fostering self-directed learning. That may all be true, and teaching students to “think like a lawyer” is all great, but teaching them nothing else besides that means cheating them out of the thorough education they ought to be receiving. We need to focus on teaching law students what they need to know on the bar exam and in law practice. Employers increasingly say that they want junior associates to “hit the ground running.” In that sense, analytical skills and thinking skills are a great start, but practical knowledge and application are what set a potential candidate apart from the rest.  

My hunch is that for some (many?) law professors, the Socratic method is not much more than a crutch—a easy way out of preparing “hard” lectures on the substantive black letter law. For others, it’s simply “the way we’ve always done things.” For students, though, a purely Socratic environment isn’t necessarily the most effective and efficient learning environment at all.  

In next month’s Ms. Prof. column:  

Law school numbers, recruiting, and wearing make-up to work: Next month, I look at some interesting recent articles about the recruitment of women and minority professors and their experiences in the classroom.



I couldn’t disagree more.  There is no way that a three year law school can teach you what you need to be a lawyer.  The avenues of legal practice that recent graduates take are widely varied.  The people that teach in law school are not, for the most part, practicing lawyers and most of them haven’t practiced for a very long time, if ever.  The law and the practice of law is continuously changing.  In fact, what you need to know to practice law is very specific to the firm/office, practice, state, region that you find yourself in—even the specific partner/supervisor that you end up working for has a lot to do with how you will and should do your job of being a lawyer.
However, what you do need to be able to do is think critically, take and defend a position, be assertive, stand up for your client, form and deliver an argument.  You will most likely be in uncomforatble positions. You will most likely lose at least every so often.  You will most likely have to argue/defend a position that you don’t necessarily believe in or even ones that you don’t necessarily understand all that well.  You will have to get outside your comfort zone.  You will have to be quick on your feet and be able to do legal analysis under varying degrees of pressure.
Loving the law or her complex principles is not going to be a big part of your job.  Having enough time to learn the intracacies of every position you defend or argue against isn’t going to be a luxury you often get.
Compounding the facts that I’ve set forth above, most of the students in law school have never really had a job.  Or, at least they haven’t really had much responsibility.  They probably haven’t been yelled at and may have never had anything they’ve ever said challenged.  They haven’t had to second-guess themselves. 
I think all black letter/case law courses at law school should be taught by the socratic method.    Lawyers have a lot of responsibility in this society and the professional school that, for the most part, gives them the keys to that responsibility should not be overly concerned about making the students comfortable. 
In my experience a little confidence “crushing” works miracles for confidence building.


There were so few teachers at my law school practicing the Socratic method it’s hard to make any evaluation of it’s effectiveness. But I can say unequivically that these professors had to work much longer and harder to plan their lectures. The assumption that faculty  have it easier when they coax students into teaching one another is dead wrong.
My criminal law professor would badger us with questions, but it wasn’t in the Socratic method. It was more like an oral pop quiz on the facts of cases. You had to have read the cases, but it didn’t require a lot of analysis or reasoning.
My civil procedure professor would rotate around the room, asking one question per student. This dialog was less stressful because you were only on the hot seat momentarily, but it got closer to the Socratic method in the thinking it required.
I didn’t find either approach significantly more effective than the various lecture styles other professors adopted. I do think these teachers got a larger portion of the class to prepare for each session.
The biggest impact was that these teachers united the class. It was us against them and the war stories created lasting bonds.
I once talked to my constitutional law professor about why the Socratic method had fallen out of favor. It was his impression that it was a direct result of the admittance of a critical mass of women to law school. There was something sadistic about the Socratic method and the largely male faculty weren’t comfortable putting women through that.
There’s a lot of debate right now about all the things law schools fail to teach. Many are comparing law school to business school unfavorably with respect to the general failure to make us effective business professionals with networks, client development, and client relation skills no where near curricula. I agree with those criticisms. I’m not suggesting we scrap the traditional 1L regimen. But perhaps in addition to requiring professional responsibility and a writing requirement schools should consider requiring some business-skills content and keep some version of the interactive class structure around while they’re at it.


It interesting that I’ve also heard the same rationale for the death of the socratic method—women are too weak to handle it.
Perhaps that is the root of my displeasure with arguments against it based on it being too tough, not effective enough, not comfortable etc.  I can’t stand the concept that something that worked for men had to be changed because it was too harsh for the tender female sensibilities!
I was in the Army for a long time.  Officers generally carry 9mm handguns when they aren’t on the front lines of combat.  I was told that the weapon of choice for the Army was once the Colt 45 but that when women were integrated into the Army’s officer ranks the Army had to go with the less-effective, less accurate, less deadly 9mm because the 45 was too hard for the women to fire.  That always made me angry—the idea that the Army sacrificed effectiveness of weapons carried by men and women alike because women were weaker (actual or perceived?) never settled with me.


Elie Mystal, recalling the terror of facing Professor Elena Kagan in Civ Pro.


In my experience a little confidence “crushing” works miracles for confidence crushing, not confidence building.

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