How to Beat the Socratic Method in Law School

If you’re like most college students, you’re used to classes taking place in lecture form. A professor or a TA is in front of the class, they talk, maybe you get to ask a question, you take notes, rinse, repeat. Your only experience with the Socratic Method is seeing it in the movies or Googling it, or if you’re lucky, you’ve taken a class where your teacher used the Socratic Method as a tool. If you’re not familiar, here’s the deal. The Socratic Method of teaching involves almost no lecturing and lots (and lots) of in-class discussion. Your teacher will ask you progressively more challenging questions, asking you to recall and manipulate a case fact pattern, and answer a bunch of “what ifs”.
Sounds like fun, right? If you’re prepared, it’s exhilarating. If you didn’t brief the case, you might be in for the longest two (or 20) minutes of your life.
Want to get a head start on being awesome in law school? Check out our advice for not just surviving, but thriving through the Socratic Method in law school. It might just help you in your current classes, too.

1. Brief those cases.

You will definitely hear that your friend’s cousin’s best friend didn’t brief a single case in 1L and ended up first in her class. Well, good for you, Julie, but for most law students, briefing cases is an essential part of understanding what’s going on and being prepared for class. You’ll learn how to brief (or look it up online) before you start law school, but briefing cases involves taking note of certain basic elements of each case (what was the issue, what were the facts, what did the court or courts hold and why). This is important because you want to understand how the law exists and is upheld in context. And, because you’re going to be reading pretty much constantly, briefing will help you remember what you read (yay), encourage you to read actively (double yay), and ideally prompt you to think about what isn’t said, aka what questions you have. Without a good and consistent habit of reading a briefing, it’s unlikely that you’ll remember enough information to stand up to much scrutiny in class. So don’t just highlight your books and write notes in the margin. The better you know the basics, the more you can play around with the fact patterns when called upon by your professor.

2. Get comfortable with public speaking.

There’s no “I’ll get the next one” in law school classes, so when your professor calls on you, you’re going to have to join the discussion. How this actually happens depends on your teacher. Some may call on students from a seating chart, some might go alphabetically, some might pick on your because you’re wearing an orange shirt and they really like (or hate) the color orange. You’ll then explore a case or topic, sometimes for a few questions, or sometimes for an entire class in the hot seat. If you’re not a confident public speaker, this is something you can work on. Remember that everyone in class probably feels the same degree of trepidation as you. Also, remember that class discussion is where you want to make mistakes or not know an answer. Better there than on your final.

3. Know thy teacher.

A good lawyer knows the law, a great lawyer goes to CrossFit with the judge? It’s the same for your professors. You don’t have to stalk them at their favorite brunch spot, but you should get to know what your professors tend to focus on, and pay extra attention to that part of the case.

4. Get right with uncertainty.

Black-letter law is clear, without much room for nuance. But so much of the law is about the but-what-if that when questioned using the Socratic Method, there’s not a way to be sure that you are correct. And when you’re so used to having a right and wrong answer, thinking about the law as this messy thing that doesn’t always make sense or “feel” right is… tough. What your professor is trying to do when she asks you to apply slightly different fact patterns in a case is to get you to think critically about points of law and use what you know in the face of changing circumstances. As a lawyer, you may not spend time in court, but you will be solving problems. Think about the Socratic Method as problem-solving on the fly. And be ok with making and defending educated guesses. Remember Logic Games where midway through a game, the order changes? It’s like that but with everyone watching. Just kidding. It’s going to be ok.