Ms. JD

The Socratic Method Myth

Ed. Note: This summer, Ms. JD solicited law school myths from law students across the country.  Many students discussed the Socratic method, most agreeing that it isn’t as bad as the myths indicate.

A student from the University of Pennsylvania Law School writes:

Before law school, I was certain the Socratic method had two functions: intimidation and embarrassment.  Every student, I thought, would be looking at me to misstate a case holding, and the professor would eagerly await a misstep to inform me of my intellectual inferiority. Thus, the first time I heard my name shouted from the front of the classroom—in a tone that only law school professors and angry parents can verbalize—I was beyond terrified.  A girl I barely knew sitting next to me recognized my unease, and subtly turned her notebook towards me to help out.  I was able to answer the question without her notes and, after a calm discussion about the case, the professor complimented me on my preparedness and my comprehension of a difficult concept.

Kristen E. Greenbaum, Boston College Law School, writes:

The first two weeks of class, I felt like I would rather shove red-hot pokers in my eyes than suffer the humiliation that was being called on in class. I’d watch my fellow students be forced to endure sometimes 40 minutes worth of grilling and had a great deal of respect for the ones who emerged successfully, thinking I would never be able to string a coherent sentence together when singled out in front of 80 of my classmates. Then, it actually happened--I was called on. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t as awful as I had imagined it to be. Sure, I stumbled over a few of my words and probably took a few too many pauses in between sentences, but I was able to come up with a reasonably intelligent response and come out unscathed. I’d compare experiencing the Socratic method to jumping into a freezing cold pool for the first time. Sure, it’s a shock to the system at first, but then you get used to it and it’s not so bad.

A UC Davis School of Law student agrees that the Socratic Method is not so bad:

Of all the myths about law school, the Socratic method looms the largest.  Before I started law school, I thought the professors’ only goal was to humiliate you in front of your classmates and to make you squirm by asking questions that have absolutely no answers.  However, that is far from the truth.  While the first time a professor calls on you is admittedly nerve-racking, usually there are actual answers to her questions, and generally she will move on if you don’t know the answer.  Your classmates, instead of judging you, will either be ignoring you or offering words of encouragement. I believe in the long run the Socratic Method helps you get more out of law school and become a better lawyer.

However, some students, including Toni Stone at California Western School of Law, agree that the Socratic Method is actually worse than the myths indicate:

The Socratic method is much scarier in real life. The professors stand at the front of the room and call on students randomly without warning. This is supposed to ensure that students come adequately prepared for class but all it really does is cause you to fear the sound of your own name. During every class you will wait anxiously until the day your professor calls your name. When the professor finally calls your name you will have to swallow the huge lump in your throat and attempt to give an answer to a question that you undoubtedly did not hear because of the inner panic you were suffering. Beware, not even my candid explanation can properly prepare you for your actual Socratic method experience.

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