Is It Time to End the Socratic Insanity in Law Schools?

The Socratic method is not only old-fashioned but also unnecessary, and even harmful, to the training of young lawyers.

Source Shutterstock. Composite by Ned Colin

Why you should care

Because doing things the way they’ve always been done is not a good enough reason, especially if your goal is to teach reasoning.

“Who can tell us about Gordon v. Steel?”

It’s Delta Nu sorority president–turned–law student Elle Woods’ first class at Harvard Law School in Legally Blonde, and she’s about to get her first lesson in the Socratic method. “Let’s call on someone from the hot zone,” her professor mischievously declares, walking up to Elle’s desk in the front row. “Elle Woods.”

While Legally Blonde takes a number of liberties with law school (and the law), its depiction of the overbearing teaching style that is one of the hallmarks of American legal education is not unlike the classroom atmosphere that many students encounter today. Most first-year law students have been in the same hot zone as Elle Woods and experienced the sweaty palms, trepidation and ritualized humiliation of what is known as the Socratic method.

The pedagogic style, in which an instructor uses an assigned seating chart with photographs to cold-call students to recite the facts of a case or opine upon its legal principles, has been hailed as the molder of young, legal minds for more than a century. But, like so many time-honored traditions of yesteryear, it’s due for a makeover, or better yet, a retirement. The Socratic method is not only old-fashioned but also unnecessary, and even harmful, to the training of young lawyers. 

Most law professors are not Elizabeth Warren.

As the name suggests, the method comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who liked to instruct his students in a question-and-answer banter designed to help them think critically. It would be another 2,000-plus years before a Harvard contracts law professor named Christopher Langdell took the tool and merged it in 1870 with a curriculum focused on judicial case precedents, now known as the case method. Langdell’s chimera has become the predominant pedagogical method in an American legal education, used by 97 percent of professors in first-year U.S. law classes, according to one 1996 survey (law professors in Europe, Asia and elsewhere tend to lecture to their large first-year classes).

It’s somewhat incredible that a method based on rigorous probing and questioning would itself go relatively unquestioned for so long. But it has — and despite numerous drawbacks. The “survival ritual” does not just lead to anecdotal humiliation and trauma. Several studies have linked the teaching style to the increased incidence of depression (some 30 to 40 percent) found in first-year law students. Some students, including women and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, seem particularly cowed into silence and low participation by the teaching style. 

Instead of prompting students to engage with unfamiliar material and sharpen their reasoning skills, it can disorient many. This is perhaps not surprising. “Law school is the one place where first-year students read the way advanced professionals talk to one another,” says Daniel Urman, a lawyer and legal expert at Northeastern University. “Reading a judicial decision is like reading doctors’ notes to each other. It’s a totally different language.” And it’s an increasingly antiquated language when it comes to the way the modern practice of law works in a legal system not governed by an evolving “common law” of appellate cases but primarily by the statutes and regulations promulgated by legislatures and administrative agencies.

The efficacy of the method, of course, depends on the talent of the instructor, and in some hands, it can truly be a tool of illumination and inclusion. A recent New York magazine article on law professor–turned–presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren showcased the senator’s pedagogical talents, including her ability to use the Socratic method to better balance classroom participation and facilitate a large, inclusive conversation. Most law professors are not Warren, though, says Urman, and if done poorly, the Socratic style can go from effective to disastrous, leading to discussions that spend disproportionate time on flailing student responses and to instructors who learn to get by on their wits rather than the preparation required for a traditional lecture.

The landscape of legal instruction is slowly evolving, and also focusing more on smaller seminars and innovative new experiential learning methods like clinical courses, none of which use the Socratic style, says Lincoln Caplan, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School. But in large first-year courses, the Socratic method, with its grandiose manner and flaws, remains the pedagogical bread and butter, much to the detriment of many students. But, while many law students would undoubtedly endorse discontinuing the method, you wouldn’t necessarily have to throw out the Socratic baby with the humiliating bathwater. According to a 2014 study of medical students, third-years performed much better on their exams than first-years did after receiving Socratic instruction, which suggests it could also be easier to learn to “think like a lawyer” after one has had some actual legal instruction.

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.