The Socratic Method And Why It Should Not Be Taught In Law School

The Socratic Method is synonymous with law school.  While the method is extremely valuable for lawyers, it is not helpful for law students; and oftentimes, it just detracts from them learning the law.

What is the Socratic Method?  The Socratic Method is named after Socrates, the father of western philosophy.  It is defined as a form of a cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. 

A classic example is when Socrates asked a general about courage.  Socrates wanted to find a universal definition of courage, so he asked the general Laches what does he define courage to be.  The general said that courage is “a certain perseverance of the soul.”  Socrates challenged this idea by inquiring about a retreating army when it is prudent to do so.  Would it not be “perseverance of the soul” to retreat in a situation that demanded it, so one can fight another day instead of being totally defeated?  This contradicted the general’s definition.  With this questioning and answering, which would go on and on until a universal definition was learned, is the essence of the Socratic Method finding undeniable truths.

In 1870, the dean of Harvard Law School, Christopher Columbus Langdell, implemented a new way to teach law students.  He invented the case study method, which is taking case law and using the Socratic Method to teach students to think critically and develop conclusions.  In theory, this sounds good because it helps students think like lawyers.  In law the Socratic Method is valuable when questioning witnesses to find the truth.  For lawyers, the Socratic Method is a great skill to develop.  In law school, however, not so much. 

The Socratic Method is problematic for most law students because they have no foundational understanding of the law.  Students should not be acting and thinking like a lawyer before learning the underlying principles of law.  It would be like a pilot trying to fly a plane without understanding the law of aerodynamics (I wouldn’t want to be on that plane).

Before developing the Socratic Method, law students need to focus on learning the black letter law (which is already well-developed).  Then, once they mastered that, the next building block is learning how to be a lawyer.  Then, the next step is the Socratic Method.  Teaching the Socratic Method first only confuses most students and is teaching them to run before they can crawl.

I’ve developed a study method that shows students how to master the law, which is the foundation they will need to be a successful attorney. 

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