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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 his point.

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.

© ANO Pericles, Moscow, 2000. ANO Pericles, American Business & Legal Education Project, 22, 1st Miusskaya Street, Room 310, Moscow, 125047 Russia, +7(495) 649-2273, You may freely print or photocopy this article for any non-commercial purposes provided you do not delete the name of the author and the name and contact information of Pericles American Business & Legal Education Project. If you use this article for your own web site, please link to our site rather than stealing it and reposting it on your own. For any other uses of this article, please contact us for permission. Your comments on this article are welcome.
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