The Socratic method is the marathon racing of law school: Greek, very few people like it, those that do are way too into it to be healthy, and the best thing you can say about it is that the first guy who did it died. But law professors continue to sing its virtues thousands of years down the road, even after evidence begins to mount that it puts some students at a distinct disadvantage.
That’s why it’s an event to see law professors argue on an Internet board about the merits of the Socratic method as an instructional strategy….
This rare view of professors seriously debating the merits of the teaching method that has defined the profession for years started on Outside the Law School Scam last week. MA wrote a post entitled If You’re Going To Law School, Do It Right:
The Socratic method is the method used by sage law professors to tease the law’s nuances out of the minds of their brilliant pupils. In practice, it leads to lazy law professors with little real world experience calling on whichever gunner feels like talking that day. Law school is very different from most educational experiences. Professors enjoy actively hiding the ball from students. The classes consist of meandering discussions that often have no real point and leave students even more confused than before. Casebooks contain cases that take 20 pages to make a point that could be made in a paragraph. The legal education as hazing ritual model was bad when it began and only persists because the law school educational complex makes so much money selling materials to help explain casebooks and simple points of law to students.
Shots fired, right? The critique of the Socratic method as a cruel game designed to let professors show off how clever they are while students struggle to tease out basic concepts from boring cases is well-established. It was the basic dispute between the Harvard casebook approach and the Litchfield “shut the hell up and take notes” approach that raged almost two hundred years ago.
MA goes on to point to bar prep materials as specific evidence of how detached law school is from the practical requirements of the learning the legal profession because law students have to wait until they’ve already graduated to learn what states define as the bare minimum in practical knowledge a lawyer should possess.
Professor Orin Kerr took exception to this point:
You’re right that bar exam materials make the law seem very simple. But that’s because bar review materials give you a fake oversimplified version of the law rather than the actual complicated version. The bar exam uses multiple choice questions and essay grading by non-experts, so they have to test on a fake simple version of the law instead of the actual complicated version. They have to dumb it down and pretend it’s easy to make it simple (and low cost) to grade. Bar exam materials are simple because they teach the fake simple version of the law that is tested on the bar exam. Given that, I don’t think differences between bar exam materials and what is taught in law schools shows that law schools are doing it wrong.
Sure, bar exams reward superficial understanding of a broad array of topics, but to counter Professor Kerr, don’t get dragged into the false dichotomy that legal education must choose between BAR/BRI and The Paper Chase. Just because the former fails to teach the full nuance of “thinking like a lawyer” doesn’t mean the latter is a necessity.
As I put it last year when criticisms arose that the Socratic method disadvantages female law students:
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.
And that’s where a former law professor writing under the handle “Carthage must be footnoted” comes in:
Law school can teach a handful of particular, distinct skills. The main skill it teaches is how to write a law school exam—which is a skill that has cognates in writing bench memos for judges/appellate briefs.
The questions that I didn’t ask until I was a law professor:
1. Does the Socratic method do a good job of teaching the above skills?
2. Are those the most useful skills for our students to learn?
What Carthage concluded based on his experience is that mostly law professors refuse to question themselves on this point because they excelled at the Socratic method, and achieved their standing based on their ability to teach the Socratic method, and admitting its deficiencies would be a tremendous blow to their egos.
Just how deficient does he find the Socratic method?
[I]t’s sort of like blindfolding your students, handing them legos dipped in goo, and asking them to construct a railroad depot, with the added caveat that you do not, in fact, want a railroad depot; you really want a museum of trains, something that only looks like a railroad depot from a distance. The fact that some students manage to produce the appropriate museum is no reason to pat ourselves on the backs.
At the end of the day, Carthage takes an interesting approach to the much disputed/maligned concept of clinical/practice-ready education. Instead of adopting the artificial divide between clinical and theoretical education or adopting “practice ready” as the standard for any practical education, Carthage looked for opportunities to integrate practical concepts into theoretical classes:
As for the second question, it became quickly obvious to me that most of my students would not, in fact, ever need to think like a law professor—that if I wanted to help them succeed, I needed to give them projects and tasks that mimicked the sort of things they would actually be doing in practice even though I taught nonclinical classes.
But I know f**k-all about practice, and while people all around me told me it didn’t matter, it soon became apparent to me that this was a self-serving myth created by the practice-light environment of academia. In what actual world would a total lack of experience and knowledge ever be irrelevant?
It reminds me of Professor Carodine’s pitch requiring law professors of all subjects to seek out regular practical experiences.
Professor Kerr says:
The traditional Socratic Method hasn’t been common in law schools since Nixon was President. It was subject to very harsh criticism in the 1960s and 1970s, and as a result most professors today use a wide range of teaching techniques.
I call shenanigans! That a proportion of professors swapped the practice of “cold calling” for designated “on-call students” doesn’t undermine the point at hand. The law school experience — at least in the core theoretical classes — remains dominated by the practice that Carthage critiques. Carthage agrees:
Sit in on most doctrinal law school classes, and you’re going to be watching something that gets called the “modified Socratic method.” Yeah, we’re not Kingsfields any longer. We also don’t use corporeal punishment, either. Yay us. We’re really moving along.
Indeed. Check out the whole debate — which is still developing — on the two Outside the Law School Scam posts.
If You’re Going To Law School, Do It Right [Outside the Law School Scam]
A Former Law Professor Speaks Out on the Majesty of the Socratic Method [Outside the Law School Scam]
Earlier: Socratic Method Linked To Female Underachievement in Law School
The Most Famous Law School You’ve Never Heard Of
What If Law Schools Were Really Serious About ‘Practice Ready’ Grads?
Making Law School Millennial-Friendly
The Myth Of The ‘Practice Ready’ Law Graduate