Alan Dershowitz, Law Schools, Sexism, Women's Issues

Socratic Method Linked To Female Underachievement in Law School

The Socratic method is the bane of every law student. If executed through cold calling, it meant you sat there knowing that at any given moment you could be called upon to publicly humiliate yourself in front of your peers. Even if the process relied on voluntary participation, there was a sense of trepidation attached to both talking and remaining silent.

Some insufferable douches people enjoyed the “law school experience” of the Socratic method, either because they were academic superstars or otherwise possessed a massive ego and the misapprehension that anyone cared about their opinion.

Here’s how much the Socratic method sucks: it’s named after a guy that everyone thought was so much of a prick they made him kill himself for cold calling everyone in Athens.

There is an argument that the system itself disadvantages women. But “disadvantages women” at what? Being a law student or being a lawyer? Because those are two very different things…

The Harvard Crimson is in the midst of a series on gender disparity issues at HLS. In the second installment, the Crimson addresses the impact of the Socratic method.

In a 2004 study on gender issues at Harvard Law School, a then-third-year law student Adam M. C. Neufeld found that men were 50 percent more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class, and 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times. The study also showed that 10 percent of students accounted for nearly half of all volunteered comments in first-year law classrooms.

“I think the big point is that many men weren’t talking too,” Neufeld said. “There was a small number of people who account for most of the comments.”

More recently, according to a 2012 study at Yale Law School, men made 58 percent of comments in the classroom, while women made 42 percent.

In fairness, exclusive cold calling combats the disparities in class participation. But the fact that, left to their own devices, women are statistically less inclined to speak up suggests that fewer women than men are enjoying the cold calling experience, too. And the disdain for this pedagogical method could be shaking student confidence and making the whole educational experience less pleasant.

But then we get to the observation that tends to fuel the debate over the issue:

“Volunteering is a fairly socially aggressive act,” [former HLS student Adam M. C. Neufeld] said. “You are making all the other students listen to your comment, you think it is unbelievably important and something that no one else has thought of.”

Some, on both sides of the debate, think this speaks to a gender issue. I actually disagree. The problem is thinking that this points to a deficiency in the quiet women because they are not “socially aggressive” as opposed to realizing that one of the signs of a sociopath is thinking that personal input is “unbelievably important and something that no one else has thought of.”

I did fine in classes with the Socratic method. I did fine in classes without it. Some students prefer the old school approach, others learned better with different pedagogical tactics. Stop acting like there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and everyone will be better off as students.

Unfortunately, the debate is mostly tethered to “reforming the system to help women” or “keeping the system as is.” Instead of arguing that figuring out THE system is a fool’s errand and diverse approaches are good.

And that leads to commentary like this:

“It’s an extreme form of sexism to say that essentially women in general aren’t capable of dealing with the demands of the Socratic method,” said Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz.

Dershowitz noted that some of the best Socratic students in his classes have been women. “You cannot generalize about men and women when it comes to their ability to be law students or practice law,” he said. “We have to keep inquiring as to why this disparity exists but we have to do it without divulging into stereotypes.”


“The whole practice of law is Socratic,” he said. “You can’t be an effective advocate without mastering the Socratic method.”

But Dershowitz actually hits on the problem — not every lawyer is going to be a trial lawyer in front of an appellate panel. Nor is every lawyer going to enter the academic death spiral of “doing law school” for the rest of their lives.

Women may statistically be at a disadvantage with the Socratic method and that may hurt when it comes to “being a stereotypical law student,” but they make perfectly fine attorneys, and theoretically that should be the point of law school.

Being a good little gunner in front of 100 people doesn’t make someone, male or female, better able to compile a research memo and discuss it with a partner or a small team. Nor does it help a lawyer negotiate changes when drafting agreements. Nor does it assist in mastering the networking skills that dominate the business side of law. The “avoiding public humiliation” thing doesn’t matter much to being a good lawyer. No matter what, there will be enough private humiliation that no amount of Socratic method can avoid.

“If you can show that the Socratic method makes us better lawyers, then fine, but we need to see that data,” said Lena M. Silver, a third-year Law School student and the co-chair of the Shatter the Ceiling coalition.

Exactly. Go ahead and drop the mic Lena M. Silver.

In HLS Classes, Women Fall Behind [Harvard Crimson]
Is Law School Sexist? [National Review Online]

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