The post about the Socratic method (for rising 1Ls)
Posted on July 28th, 2012
For some reason, the Socratic method is the thing law students latch onto as the biggest, scariest part of their first year. It isn’t, although I understand why you worry. You think, “OMG, I’m going to make a fool of myself in front of my entire class!”
And — I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you — you will. You will freeze and you will give the wrong answer and even though you knew the cases cold before class, you’ll not be able to remember the name of the plaintiff, let alone the point of law the case is about. The professor will either be cruel or sympathetic or will move onto someone else.
And then it will be over and no one cares. You will spend the rest of the class mortified, but again? No one cares (they’re just relieved it was you and not them). You shouldn’t, either. Chances are you’re not getting graded on your performance in front of the class. The only thing that matters is the final — not the way you handle a bunch of left-field questions on a case that’s no longer relevant law.
In my daily life, I use the Socratic Method all the time. All the time. I have a five-year-old.
Daughter: “Mom, why did the asteroid hit the earth and kill the dinosaurs?”
Me: “Why do you think?”
Daughter: “But, Moooooom.”
Me: “Why would an asteroid hit the earth?”
Daughter: “Because it was in the way.”
Me: “OK. And why did that hurt the dinosaurs?”
Daughter: “Because they couldn’t find food afterward.”
Me: “Right. You did know, see?”
The thing about law students (and my five-year-old) is that all the information necessary to answer the question is already in your head. It’s just a matter of extracting it in the right order. A good professor knows how to do this. A bad one will stand up there and ask stupid questions that have multiple correct answers and, when you’re puzzling which answer to give, will get snippy and rude, and then never give you the right answers.
In law school, you will get both good and bad professors. This is why there are hornbooks.
The best way to prepare for classes and for your baptism by Socratic method is this:
1. Read the case. Once. More than that and you’re wasting your time.
2. Brief the case. Type it up in whatever program you’re using for notes. (This is useful anyway, because you’ll use it when you outline.)
3. Figure out all the ways the case could have been decided by a different point of law or a different set of facts. (You won’t know how to do this at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.) Put that in your notes.
4. Scan your case brief before you go into class.
5. Relax. Even if your mind goes completely blank or you stutter or faint or make an ass out of yourself, no one cares.