The Socratic Method

The key to an understanding of the socialization of law students is best found through an examination of their principal method of instruction, the case method or, as it is also called, the Socratic method (Gee, 2014; Sullivan et al., 2007). As noted earlier, the case method began in 1870 at Harvard, and it has since become the dominant form of instruction in American law schools.

The Socratic method of education involves sharp questioning by a law professor of students regarding the facts and principles contained in judges’ opinions in real legal cases. These opinions usually were written by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court or of the several federal appellate courts, but they may also have been authored by state supreme court justices. The Socratic method aims to accomplish two objectives. The first is informational: instruction in the substantive rules of law. The second aim

is to develop in the student a cognitive restructuring for the style analysis generally called "thinking like a lawyer." In that analysis, a student is trained to account for the factual "details" as well as legal issues determined by the court to be at the core of the dispute which may allow an intelligent prediction of what another court would do with a similar set of facts. The technique is learner centered: students are closely questioned and their responses are often taken to direct the dialogue.

(Bonsignore et al., 1989:275)

This method of learning the law through court decisions, appellate opinions, and attempts to justify those opinions predominates at virtually every law school in the country and has not changed since its introduction in 1870.

The first-year curriculum is rather uniform across all law schools. Nearly all the students who begin their legal education every fall must take what are generally thought of as the basic subjects—contracts, torts, property law, criminal law, and civil procedure. And for all of them, the effects of that education are considered to be equally predictable and far-reaching. It is during the first year that law students learn to read a case, frame a legal argument, and distinguish between seemingly indistinguishable ideas; then they start absorbing the mysterious language of the law, full of words like “estoppel” and “replevin.” It is during the first year that a law student learns “to think like a lawyer,” to develop the habits and perspectives that will stay with her or him throughout a legal career (Turow, 1977:60).

The ratio of the number of students to the number of faculty in law schools is generally higher than that in other forms of graduate education. A 20-1 student-faculty ratio is rather common at many law schools, compared with about 6-1 ratio in graduate schools. The law school ratio reflects the assumption that law students, unlike other graduate students, are handled in large classes and that law professors, unlike other academicians, “have no research work to be done” (Manning, 1968:4). Although the emphasis on research is on the increase among law professors, students, especially during the first year, are taught in large classes.

Fortunately, a striking advantage of the Socratic method is its adaptability to large classes. Indeed, the impersonality of the large law school class might well be helpful to the student called upon to perform under attack (via the Socratic method) for the first time in her or his life. As once stated by a law professor at Yale, “After you’ve taught a subject to a class of a hundred for two or three years, you can anticipate the questions and their timing. When I started, I was told, ‘Pick four or five points and keep coming back to them; find the bright students and play them like a piano!’ It works” (Mayer, 1967:83-84). This method requires the student to do his or her own work and to prepare regularly for classes. When a professor has a gift for posing hypothetical questions, and invents cases to supplement the real ones, the method can be extremely stimulating, pointing out to a student that the rule, as he or she has stated it, would produce a different result under other circumstances. This method also focuses attention on subtleties and provides a good background for logical reasoning.

Despite the Socratic method’s advantages, students have long deplored its failure to encourage creativeness and its lack of intellectual stimulation (Stevens, 1973; Tushnet, 2008). The class atmosphere is considered to be a hostile one, with the hostility directed from the icily distant law professor toward the student who has been put on the spot.

This situation can pose a threat to the students’ self-esteem, self-respect, and identity, helping to account for the elevated levels of depression and anxiety law students experience (Patrice, 2015).

Defenders of the Socratic method say that it aims to acclimate the students to real-life legal reasoning and to “thinking like a lawyer” (Bankowski and MacLean, 2007; Schauer, 2009). Critics of the Socratic method question that connection and say that “one often gets the feeling that the recitation of ‘thinking like a lawyer’ has become more a talismanic justification for what is going on than an articulated educational program” (Packer and Ehrlich, 1972:30).

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