Defending Socrates — or at least his method

Legal education has been under attack from inside and outside the legal profession for any number of years. But with the recent economic crunch and the lack of jobs, one of the targets is the Socratic method. One of the more recent attacks came in a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where two lawyers argue that continued use of the Socratic method in law schools is “indefensible.” From my standpoint, though, law school needs the Socratic method, at least for first year students.

In law schools, the Socratic method involves the professor asking a student (rarely a volunteer) questions about a particular case, principle or rule. The progression of questions tends to lead down a path of analysis to a seemingly reasonable conclusion. Then you’re likely to get a question that changes the facts slightly, a change that may challenge, if not shatter, the assumptions on which your position is based. By finding yourself on the end of the tree branch, you begin to understand and learn how to recognize what led you there. (For fairly accurate though sometimes extreme examples, watch a couple episodes of The Paper Chase.)

The blog post says practicing lawyers consider the Socratic method “a hazing ritual, a rite of passage that fosters camaraderie among members of the bar.” Sorry, but as a practicing lawyer of nearly 29 years, I’ve never viewed it that way. To me and many others, what the Socratic method does is teach you how to “think like a lawyer.” It helps you learn how to identify and examine the many potential aspects of legal problems that will arise in the real world. I believe that unless or until your mind gets that training, you lack much capacity to assess and address the problems and pitfalls a client may face. That’s why I think it’s absolutely necessary for first year law students.

The blog post contends the critical thinking skills can be taught “more effectively” through more practical efforts, such as legal writing, mock trials or clinical legal work. I agree law school needs more emphasis on “practice skills.” But nuts and bolts skills aren’t worth as much if you can’t recognize you’re taking your client to the end of a tree branch. In fact, even the report the authors cite in support of teaching more “practice ready” skills never suggests abandoning the Socratic method.

I can vouch for the fact that being on the “hot seat” during a law school class can be distressing, especially if you are unprepared. At the same time, it focuses the brain on analysis and the ramifications of your assumptions and positions.

A lawyer’s not a person who knows the law; a lawyer is a person who’s learned how to find the law that’s needed in a given situation. And also how to read it, a correlative that some lawyers overlook, to the sorrow of their clients.

George Higgins, Sandra Nichols Found Dead

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