Ponderings of a Law Professor:  The Socratic Method as Law School Pedagogy – Does it Exclude Voices?

            Even though it is mid-summer, and the school year seems far away yet, I find myself thinking about the Socratic method as it is used in law school.  (This is undoubtedly due to my taking a summer course in philosophy, where I read several original Socratic dialogues.)  And when I think of the Socratic method and law school, I cannot help but think of Professor Kingsfield, the notorious contracts professor in The Paper Chase.  The various classroom scenes where Professor Kingsfield grills student after student on classic contracts cases like Hawkins v. McGee have for years served as a sort of example of the “typical” 1L experience with the dreaded Socratic method.

            While Professor Kingsfield surely sits at one end of the spectrum for professorial style, the Socratic method he uses endures.  Even professors who are not as intimidating and dismissive as Kingsfield still use the method.  It is, as one text notes, law school’s “signature pedagogy.”  It’s the way the law school professors across the country have been teaching law students about legal analysis for more than a century. 

            And students learn.  They begin their first year of law school with, to paraphrase Professor Kingsfield, “a head full of mush.”  Even by the end of that first semester, though, most 1Ls have developed an ability to turn that mush into cogent analysis, to make fine-line distinctions, to look for weaknesses in others’ arguments, and to argue both sides of any issue; in other words, they learn to “think like a lawyer.”   

            However, for all of the successes of the Socratic method, some have argued that it has serious flaws.  Most recently, Professor Elizabeth Mertz has criticized the Socratic method because of its “acontextual context.”  She notes that the Socratic method virtually ignores morality and social context in its attempt to teach students “objective” analysis.  This can be unsettling for students. Professor Marina Angel describes her law school experience with the Socratic method this way:

The “Socratic method” is based on several premises.  First the teacher is “God = Socrates.”  Second, there is truth, and “God = Socrates” knows what it is.  Third, the students are blithering idiots, who wouldn’t recognize truth if they fell over it, and who, therefore, must be dragged through total ridicule, to the truth as “God = Socrates” sees it.

Marina Angel, Women in Legal Education:  What It’s Like to Be Part of a Perpetual First Wave or the Case of the Disappearing Woman, 61 Temple L. Rev. 799, 810 (1988).

             The law school classroom can still be a hostile place for both sexes, but it may be particularly so for women and/or for people of color.  The professor as “God = Socrates” uses his or her powerful position to choose those with whom he or she dialogues and those whose responses he or she ridicules or ignores. (Even women professors largely utilize this same method.)  In Professor Mertz’s comprehensive study of law school classroom where the Socratic method was used, she found a gender imbalance in favor of men.  Additionally, in virtually every study of women’s experience in law schools since 1987 (when the first major study was published), there is uniform conclusion that there is lower class participation for women in large classes, which are the classes that generally make up the first year curriculum and which are the classes generally taught using the Socratic method.  Whether the evidence is statistical or anecdotal, men participate more and speak for longer periods of time in class. 

              Some claim this is because the Socratic method is often confrontational, a style that many women do not prefer, and thus many women may choose to disengage from participation. Women may also be choosing silence over participation in what they deem to be an oppressive learning environment; that is, silence may be a form of resistance.  While some might think that not having to speak in class is a plus, when the class grade depends in part on participation, those who do not participate are at a disadvantage.  Also, lack of class participation means those students might be less engaged in their learning.  Nonparticipation in classes means certain voices –  particularly the voices of women and racial or ethnic minorities -- are not heard.  This silence affects the self-esteem of those whose voices are not heard, but also sends a message about the legal profession in general.  As Professor Mertz explained, “[L]aw school classrooms in which discourse is largely dominated by white men teach a subtle lesson about the social dimensions of discourse norms in this new arena [the legal profession], about entitlement and whose views matter.”

              I am writing on the Socratic method and the silencing effect it does (or perhaps does not) have on other voices in the classroom, and the need to develop a new law school pedagogy to teach students to “think like a lawyer.”  I would love to hear from you and hear about your experiences with the Socratic method (both good and not-so-good) or with some other method you feel worked particularly well.  Please email me at

 Enjoy the rest of summer!


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