Socratic Method Makes American Legal Education Famous
Ask any scholar who has the best system of legal education?
They will tell you it is the United States. In fact, legal education
is one of America’s most successful exports. More foreign students take
graduate law study in the US than in all other countries combined.
So what attracts foreign students to the American
schools? Paradoxically, it’s mainly a little phenomenon called “the
Socratic Method.” We say paradoxically because in fact, most students
don’t much enjoy the Socratic Method. It is difficult, stress inducing
and rather confusing. But nonetheless, it develops legal thinking and
practical legal skills better than anything since invented.
Socratic method is the style of teaching through cases
and questions. Students read a case prior to their class. Then students
are asked to explain the case. The professor never explains anything,
but instead challenges the student’s explanation by questioning the
student. If the professor is doing his job well, the questions will
further and further refine the student’s thinking, exploring nuances
that the student didn’t initially realize existed. Like Socrates and
his philosophy students in ancient Greece, the idea is that the student
will develop his logic and convince himself of whether the judge’s decision
in the case was the best one.
This is difficult because it requires the student
to undertake large amounts of preparation for class. A typical reading
load is 30 pages per class. It is stress inducing because students are
often compelled to stand up and argue with the professor in front of
all their colleagues. And it’s confusing because the student is questioned
whether or not his answers are right or wrong. In fact, if a student
makes the correct answers, the professor may then play “devil’s advocate”
and argue for the wrong viewpoint. The method forces the student to
think carefully about his arguments, and to learn to rigorously defend
But although students enter this arena of Socratic
classes shy and scared, a smart student can learn the ropes in no time
at all. One former Pericles student who entered UCLA’s LL.M. program
in August 2002 wrote back to us:
“Today I participated first time in the class discussion
- it feels so good!!! Now I know I will survive. All classes I take
here are excellent, I am so lucky [they] teach me a lot to analyze and
discuss rather than just memorize the rule of law. [It] is absolutely
invaluable in terms of learning to approach a problem in its political,
economic, social etc complexity while looking for a legal solution.
I can feel the change in my attitude to problem viewing and resolving
already, and it's just the first week.”
Of course, no system of education is perfect. The
Socratic Method is often criticized for neglecting the “black letter”—that
body of memorized legal rules that every lawyer needs to know. An American
law student often finishes a course knowing more about what the law
should logically be than about what it actually is. Proponents of the
method, however, point out what every Russian law student learns in
the first year—these rules can be memorized in the week before the exams.
As you might guess from the name “Socratic,” this
educational style did not originate in the United States. The US was
merely the first to apply it to formal legal study. It stems from the
early days of Harvard Law School, America’s first legal educational
institution. You see, in those days, while British lawyers studied in
formal institutions, in America there were no law schools and law was
learned through internships. Moreover, America at that time was in a
period much like Russia is today, when law, like everything else, was
being invented anew.
Thus, when American legal study was moved off the
streets and into the classrooms, the professors sought a method that
would mimic the internship form—they wanted the training to be infinitely
practical and to quickly develop those skills a lawyer needed. The American
professors were not interested in history of law or theory of law—they
wanted to teach “how to” courses. And how to argue a case in court or
represent a client in negotiation comes from quick thinking and logical
skills that the Socratic Method developed. The Socratic Method resembles
a lawyer’s life, in that students must be able to read and understand
cases quickly and to think of themselves in the roles of the lawyers
or judges in the cases they discuss.
Today, all countries recognize the value of this method
in teaching legal thinking, although not all countries use it in their
own legal education. Why then is Socratic Method not so frequently used
in other countries? Partly this is because many countries apply the
civilian legal methodology, where case law is not a source of law. While
civilian lawyers often make similar logical arguments, civilian cases
are not written with the purpose of explaining the judge’s formal logic.
Thus a civilian law professor who wants to use the case method will
have much less raw material to work with.
Even in other Common Law legal systems, however, the
Socratic method is not as frequently used as it is in the U.S. This
is partly because students in British or Canadian law schools, for instance,
are not as old and do not tend to have the broader educational background
and practical life experience of American law students. American law
students must first complete a bachelor’s degree in any subject before
they even consider starting law school. Although not required, most
American law students have also had some working experience—often as
paralegals or interns—before they even start law school. As a result,
the American law school class tends to have students who are more confident,
and more willing to bring life experience into class discussion.
In sum then, American legal education is famous for
teaching law students to “Think like a lawyer.” (To quote the famous
Professor Kingsfield from the movie “the Paper Chase.”) Although many
have tried, nobody does it better.
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