The Socratic Method -- Part One of a Miniseries Event From the Producers of The E! True Hollywood Story: The Captain & TennilleSep 17, 2000 Write an essay on this topic.
As I begin my second year in a new place, I am reminded of my start at Stanford a year ago. The process of starting something new (a job, a relationship, an identity with the Witness Relocation Program) is always a daunting task. But that new experience, that first year of law school, had challenge written all over it. Of course, most new experiences do. But law school is the one that everyone warns you about. People go out of their way to advise, to warn, or in some cases, do a little of both. And, with this sordid amalgamation of information, comes rumors, stories (“A cousin who went to law school for a week told me that…”), and other “facts” you should be aware of. All are designed, intentionally or not, to scare you to death and perhaps start you thinking that mall hours aren’t so bad and whether that perfume girl position is still open.
However, I enjoy law school too much to allow so much misinformation to continue. In an effort to instill a healthier mindset in the 1Ls of America (and maybe the world – forgive my ego), I am going to try to shed light on some myths of law school. Myth one in the series: The Socratic Method.
How Many Philosophers Does It Take To Scare a First-Year Law Student: The Socratic Method
The Paper Chase. The movie that has scarred every law student who has seen it since its release. It’s the first movie that is recommended that you see before you start law school. And it’s the last one that you should for it perpetuates every myth about law school. For the purposes of this review, I am going to focus on the myths and legends of the Socratic Method.
Every entering student cringes at the thought of it and curses Plato and Socrates when they first step into law school. However, what these students are really cringing at is the idea of this technique as shown in The Paper Chase and demonstrated by the unforgettable Professor Kingsfield.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Socratic Method (lucky, lucky you), the concept (in its purest form) is this -- a professor selects a student (very rarely relying on volunteers) and questions on a case that was to be prepared for that class. They are asked for the facts (the circumstances that led up to the case being in a judicial setting), the rule (the law the court – usually appellate – based their finding(s) on), and the holding (the synthesis of the facts and the holding). The professor starts twisting and changing the facts of the case (“what if x had done y instead of doing z? Would the appellate court have found differently?”) The goal (besides initiating that perpetual confusion that lasts your whole first year) is to make you think about the law, understand it, and hone the way you read it and see it.
However, many students believe the Socratic Method functions in only one fashion and that’s the Professor Kingsfield way. Meaning? The professor accosts one student at the start of class and grills them until the student breaks down or the class ends, whichever comes first. The result being that the professor never utters a declarative sentence for the semester and breaks down each student until there is nothing left of their original selves. God, if law school was really like that I would be in the process of signing up for seven therapy sessions a week. However, law school isn’t that (at least, in my experience). So, what is it?
How Many 2Ls Does It Take To Reveal the Reality of the Socratic Method? We’ll Start With One
As I said previously, the Socratic style epitomized by Prof. Kingsfield is such a rarity as to be non-existent (however, since I’ve had experience with only two law programs and the recollections of friends at or alumni of a half-a-dozen or so more, I cannot state with absolute certainty that the style is obsolete.) What is coming into the forefront is a more modern approach. Generally, the professor calls on the student to answer specific questions about a case that was to be prepared for class or a hypothetical situation (a “hypo”) that the professor has proposed. This approach allows for the student to develop critical thinking skills. However, what it also does is intimidate and/or embarrass the student being questioned. The general source of this feeling finds its source in the students who are in class with you. You think they are questioning how you ever got into the school. However, what most of them are doing is thanking God or the local voodoo priestess for not being the one on the spot. It all may seem nerve-wracking at first but think of it like this: would you rather be questioned in an environment where most of the people around you understand your frustration and embarrassment or would rather wait to be upbraided by an impatient senior partner or judge? Thinking of it in that way may help put it all into perspective. Most professors are not out to embarrass you. They are professors and actually want you to learn and understand what they are teaching you.
For Our Next Moot Court Exercise, Let’s Work On the Closing Statement
I completely understand the apprehension one feels when faced with the reality of the Socratic Method. I waited with trepidation those first weeks in each of my classes for the other shoe to drop and my moment on the hot seat to come. It came. It went. And I was still alive to live another day and brief another case.
Most lawyers will never see the inside of a courtroom (especially with the rise in Mediation/Alternate Dispute Resolution). But think of those Socratic moments as your own personal Law & Order moment. If you put yourself outside of the moment and understand that is but one small period of time in your life, the pressure should seem lightened. Think that, or about that little Witness Protection Program you’ve had your eye on. Whichever works for you.
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