How the Socratic Method Works and Why Is It Used in Law School

Socrates reads fro a scroll, teaching his doctrines to the young Athenians while awaiting execution

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If you’ve been researching law schools, you've probably seen mention of the “Socratic method” being used in a school's classes. But what is the Socratic method? How is it used? Why is it used?

What Is the Socratic Method?

The Socratic method is named after Greek philosopher Socrates who taught students by asking question after question. Socrates sought to expose contradictions in the students’ thoughts and ideas to then guide them to solid, tenable conclusions. The method is still popular in legal classrooms today. 

How Does It Work? 

The principle underlying the Socratic method is that students learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic. This technique involves finding holes in their own theories and then patching them up. In law school specifically, a professor will ask a series of Socratic questions after having a student summarize a case, including relevant legal principles associated with the case. Professors often manipulate the facts or the legal principles associated with the case to demonstrate how the resolution of the case can change greatly if even one fact changes. The goal is for students to solidify their knowledge of the case by thinking critically under pressure.

This often rapid-fire exchange takes place in front of the entire class so students can practice thinking and making arguments on their feet. It also helps them master the art of speaking in front of large groups. Some law students find the process intimidating or humiliating—a la John Houseman’s Oscar-winning performance in "The Paper Chase"—but the Socratic method can actually produce a lively, engaging, and intellectual classroom atmosphere when it's done correctly by a great professor.

Simply listening to a Socratic method discussion can help you even if you're not the student who is called on. Professors use the Socratic method to keep students focused because the constant possibility of being called on in class causes students to closely follow the professor and the class discussion. 

Handling the Hot Seat

First-year law students should take comfort in the fact that everyone will get his or her turn on the hot seat—professors often simply choose a student at random instead of waiting for raised hands. The first time is often difficult for everyone, but you may actually find the process exhilarating after a while. It can be gratifying to single-handedly bring your class to the one nugget of information the professor was driving at without tripping on a hard question. Even if you feel you were unsuccessful, it might motivate you to study harder so you're more prepared next time.

You may have experienced Socratic seminar in a college course, but you’re unlikely to forget the first time you successfully played the Socratic game in law school. Most lawyers can probably tell you about their shining Socratic method moment. The Socratic method represents the core of an attorney's craft: questioning, analyzing, and simplifying. Doing all this successfully in front of others for the first time is a memorable moment.

It’s important to remember that professors aren’t using the Socratic seminar to embarrass or demean students. It's a tool for mastering difficult legal concepts and principles. The Socratic method forces students to define, articulate, and apply their thoughts. If the professor gave all the answers and broke down the case himself, would you really be challenged? 

Your Moment to Shine 

So what can you do when your law school professor fires that first Socratic question at you? Take a deep breath, remain calm and stay focused on the question. Say only what you need to say to get your point across. Sounds easy, right? It is, at least in theory.

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Fabio, Michelle. "How the Socratic Method Works and Why Is It Used in Law School." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Fabio, Michelle. (2020, August 25). How the Socratic Method Works and Why Is It Used in Law School. Retrieved from Fabio, Michelle. "How the Socratic Method Works and Why Is It Used in Law School." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).