ONE OF THE KEY distinctions between college and law school is the way classes are taught, and legal education experts say aspiring lawyers need to mentally prepare themselves for the intensity of a typical first-year law class.
Unlike college faculty and instructors, law professors teaching introductory law classes often use a pedagogical technique known as the Socratic method, which involves cold-calling on students and interrogating them about the facts and decisions in various court cases.
“The Socratic method comes from the Greek philosopher Socrates,” Lance J. Robinson, a criminal defense attorney and trial lawyer in New Orleans, wrote in an email. “His idea was to teach his students by asking question after question, which helped them think critically about their ideas and refine their beliefs.”
“We still use this method today in law schools, because it is often similar to cross-examination. By asking a series of questions meant to expose contradictions in students’ ideas, they can be guided toward more solid conclusions while also learning how to find the flaws in someone else’s thinking,” he says.
Joe Bogdan – a partner at the Chicago office of the Culhane Meadows law firm and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago – says one benefit of the Socratic method is that it allows students to imagine themselves as judges and envision how they would resolve legal disputes.
Another benefit of the method, he says, is that it shows law students what the most compelling arguments are on both sides of important legal questions so that, once they become attorneys, they can win legal debates and effectively represent their clients.
Bogdan says prospective law students should prepare for Socratic method classes by bolstering their public speaking skills. Those who are still in college should practice raising their hand in undergraduate courses and gain confidence in their ability to communicate effectively, he suggests. Participating in extracurricular activities like student government may also be useful.
Bogdan adds that individuals who have experience delivering public speeches will be less intimidated by the possibility of saying something wrong in public and will be able to keep calm under the pressure of being cold-called in a Socratic method class.
“In law school, this teaching method is pushed to its most extreme form and will often devolve into ‘grilling’ a particular student with question after question, testing the limits of their knowledge, preparation, and most importantly, their composure,” Tim Dominguez, a personal injury attorney in Los Angeles, wrote in an email.
Experts say that one important thing for law school hopefuls to know about the Socratic method is that though this teaching technique can be intimidating, the purpose behind using it is not to embarrass or humiliate students. The objective, according to experts, is to train law students on how to think and speak like lawyers.
“There’s a tendency to feel attacked when you’re put on the spot and where what you say and what you think is questioned,” says Mark Tyson, a Seattle-based business lawyer, who received his J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 2013. “There’s a tendency to feel like the person who is doing the questioning has it in for you, and the longer that a law student believes that, the worse that they’ll do in handling the Socratic method.”
“The purpose of doing it is not to make you, as a law student, feel bad about yourself. It’s really to force you to defend what you say you believe or what you say you think and to do it in a public setting,” Tyson says.