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The Socratic Method: Up Close and Personal

Law school classes are typically built on the Socratic method. By now you probably know what that means: Everyday you go to class, and the professor calls out a name—presumably randomly—and that person is on the spot for the entire class. There is no way out. The professor then starts grilling that student about one concept—the key concept—in one lousy case that was in the assigned reading for the day. What proceeds is a brutal Q and A session on that case with the lucky student of the day, who, no matter how well prepared she is, will end up looking like a total moron.

At the end of this ritual sacrifice the bloody student stumbles out of the room with everyone else, who are grateful that today, at least, their number didn’t come up. That is the Socratic method in a nutshell.

Now, the ordinary law student hates the Socratic method. And the hate runs very deep. It comes from a couple places. First, the Socratic method is a source of enormous fear.  Unless the professor is a total softy (not likely) the professor can and usually does take the student of the day and forcibly shove them through an intellectual woodchipper, head first, in front of dozens of people. It is horribly humiliating, and there is very little you can do about it. It does not matter how prepared you are, or how smart you are, or if your father is on the U.S. Supreme Court. You are going to get pummeled with body blows for an hour.

About the third day of my One L year, I am sitting in a class called “legal process” with a professor that went to Harvard about the time that Turow chose as the setting for his book. This guy absolutely loves the theatre of the Socratic method, and he loves to brutalize his students with it. Don’t get me wrong: he was a fabulously nice guy outside of class. But whatever hippie love and peace sensibilities he had in the Sixties were apparently thrown out the window on his way to class every day.

Compounding this problem for us was that the dreaded class this Grand Inquisitor taught was a class that had no other purpose than to persuade young law students that there really is no firm law. Written constitution? Nah! Statutes? Worthless! There is no law; there is only process. The law is what you make of it, and so on. It is not terribly firm footing when some wordsmith with absolute power over you starts to ask you to actually answer legal questions in front of several dozen people staring right at you.

So here we are the third day in class, and the professor calls on a poor One L immediately behind me. “So, Ms. Williams, Lord Coke said that the law was a shipman’s hose. What does this mean, a shipman’s hose?”

Here we go.

Williams started in, stammering: “Well, Professor Jones. . .”

And then it started: the hmming and hawing, the pauses and starts and stops, the flipping of pages in the text, the searching frantically, the “nothing is coming out of her mouth” moments, the dreadful silence.

Then it dawns on all of us newbie One Ls on our third day: She hasn’t read the assignment.

Professor Bow Tie, having seen the law school tap dance far too many times, did not badger her. No, he knew what he was doing. He didn’t say anything.  It got very quiet in that room in a big honking hurry.

Finally, she said it: “Well, to be perfectly honest Professor Jones. . .”

Jones burst in before she could finish this terrible thought.

“MS. WILLIAMS. . .” He didn’t shout, he didn’t even raise his voice. But he did use capital letters. We were quite sure that his words could be heard in every room of the school.  He turned to the grease board and wrote on the board in huge red ink: “PERFECTLY HONEST.”

“Ms. Williams, perhaps you can explain to us what that term means: ‘perfectly honest.’”

“Uh, well. . .”

“How does one perfect honesty?”

“What I meant was. . .”

“Tell me, what would it mean to be honest and not perfectly honest?”

Uh, mutter, stammer.

He wasn’t interested: “Tell me. Could you be imperfectly honest, Ms. Williams?”  “Why don’t you give us an example we can work with. ..”

And so it continued, for all 50 minutes left in class. One brutal question after another. One stumbling, mumbling response.  You’ve seen those famous film clips of the trial of the German officers who were hanged for plotting to assassinate Hitler? It was like that. It was 16 years ago that I sat in this class and I can still feel Professor Bowtie’s eyes glaring over me right at Williams.

2 Comments

  1. Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Great story, Gary.

    I could imagine the whole scene.

    In Brazil, some law school teachers are introducing the Socratic method. It’s a big change compared to the traditional continental method. Some classes are turning into something like what you described!

  2. Amdab
    Posted April 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    People need to read this http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/socratesaccount.html

    Shouldn’t we really call this the Platonic method as The many dialogues of Socrates and later the Republic are from Plato. There are a couple of others, but apparently they aren’t so lively. Well Plato was a writer what do people expect.

    This is why people need to be careful. Just because something is old don’t mean it’s gold. and of course the opposite could be said just because it’s old don’t mean it’s irrelevant.

    It’s interesting that another student of his says that Socrates took money for his teachings.

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