The Socratic Method in American Law Schools

Recently the Wise Law Library posted a question on our whiteboard: "How do you feel about the Socratic Method?" We received a myriad of results, most of which suggest that law students aren't entirely thrilled with this particular mainstay in legal education. Knowing that the Socratic Method is not the most popular of pedagogical tools, one might wonder why it's used in law schools.

The History

Originally, American lawyers learned the law through apprenticeships - which did not guarantee an education for the apprentice, only cheap labor for the master. Thus, law schools were created to ensure that aspiring lawyers would learn.  Early American law schools taught simply by lectures. However, in the 1870s, Harvard Law School dean Christopher Columbus Langdell developed a new pedagogical approach called the "casebook method," wherein students learned law by studying judicial opinions published in casebooks and discussing them through a Socratic style of questioning (Banks, 50-51).

How is the Socratic Method Useful?

Proponents of the Socratic Method note that it can be used effectively multiple times, in different courses, across the legal curriculum; and it allows for large and diverse classes (Abrams, 564), while helping students "hone their verbal skills" (Bautista, 4). Two studies  discovered a positive impact on equal participation between female- and male-presenting students, when the Socratic Method was used versus volunteered answers (Wood). It's also appears to work better in an online format than in-person (Hlinak, 10).

How might the Socratic Method Be Less-Than-Useful?

Though the aforementioned studies found the Socratic Method to promote equal participation between genders, other scholars find the Socratic Method to be "male-constructed and male-centered" and built on "fear, humiliation, and inimidation," which results in lower levels of confidence, increased reports of depression, and decreased grades among students who identify as female (Bailey, 125-166). Clinician Rachel Spencer found the Socratic Method to disregard introverted students and teaches aspiring lawyers to be loud and aggressive and blurt out the first thing that comes to their head (Spencer, 99).

Are there alternatives?

While the Socratic Method feels ubiquitous, it is by no means the dominant legal pedagogy. In fact, most countries teach law purely through lecture, without much student contribution at all. There is also the Problem Method, which has students focus on a problem provided outside of class, use course materials to develop a solution, and then discuss in class the various solutions (Bautista, 5). Using points and counterpoints debates achieves similar goals to the Socratic Method in highlighting the conflicts between cases, policies, legal constraints, groups, etc. (Gersen, 2343). The field of education studies has plenty of other pedagogical methods and tools to explore as an alternative to the Socratic Method.