The Reality of the Socratic Method: A Response

By: Lisa Alexander and Kevin Ramakrishna

A recent article posted on the Albany Government Law Review Fireplace blog discussed practical education versus the Socratic Method.  The post provides a student’s perspective on the different teaching methods and actually supports using the Socratic Method, and sacrificing practical learning to do so. 

On a basic level, I agree with the post.  Theoretical learning does have a place and can be beneficial.  What I do not agree with are the arguments that those who don’t want to utilize or participate in the Socratic Method are mentally weak, or that tradition requires that this Socratic method to be used (especially given that apprenticeships are likely an older and more traditional method).  I thought it might be worth a few minutes to discuss the arguments posited in that post.

The first issue is why, other than “tradition”, the Socratic Method should be maintained.  From what I gather, schools should not value different forms of learning because it only serves the weak minded, and the author supposes that the “weak” would prefer “pure lecture.”  Of course, that isn’t really true.  In fact, one of the author’s own citations will tell you that it is the implementation of the method, not the method itself, which students find insulting and demeaning. James B. Levy, As a Last Resort, Ask the Students: What They Say Makes Someone an Effective Law Teacher, 58 Me. L. Rev. 49,70 (2006).

Additionally, the value of practical education in this post is entirely misunderstood.  There is more to representation than showing up to court in a tie, or knowing what color tie to wear.  Counseling clients is a very different task than understanding a legal theory in a class, but has far reaching ramifications if done poorly.  Responding properly to a judge in an oral argument is not the same as responding to a question in class.  Explaining a legal theory to a partner at a law firm whose profit may be tied to the litigation at hand is a different animal as well.  Perhaps the most important distinction of all, real world ethics are not nearly as cut and dry as they appear to be in the classroom.  Socratic Method style teaching may give a brief taste of these practical skills and scenarios, but there is no substitute for the real thing. If schools can create a more realistic learning environment that will better prepare students for real-life practice then why shouldn’t they?

It is noteworthy that the author agrees that practical education is acceptable in the second and third years of school. Nevertheless, the overall argument seems to dovetail with the proposition that teaching methods require an all-or-nothing approach: either schools teach only the Socratic Method, or only the “practical skills.”  This perspective ignores the possibility of a dual approach.  Why can’t schools teach both theory and practice?  It is crucial that students learn black letter law, the theory behind the law, and the ability to think quickly and creatively.  However, it is also crucial that students know how to apply the law and theory in a real-life setting.  Thus, legal teaching during all three years of law school should focus on developing all of these skills in students.    No matter students’ personal motivations for attending law school, they should be taught both theoretical and practical skills—in other words, an integrated approach to teaching.  This will better prepare them for both their law school and legal careers by teaching them how to think and how to act.

The blog post’s author will be happy to note that the recent Report from the Taskforce on the Future of the Legal Profession states “[w]e do not suggest abandonment of the traditional classroom or a return to the apprenticeship model but rather a more sophisticated model.” 

An individual student’s appraisal and preference for a specific form of education has a place in the debate on legal reform, and the author is certainly not the only advocate of the method. However, the goal of a law school should be to have the best and most prepared students graduate ready, willing, and able to work.  There was a time that law firms were the practical training ground for new lawyers, but those days are largely gone. Thus, it is crucial that we give students the opportunity to develop and hone both practical and theoretical skills before they are thrust out of the bubble of legal education and into the real world of the legal profession.

4 Responses

  1. I just wanted to note that Lisa ALexander is a 3L at albany law who worked on the NYSBA taskforce on the future of the legal profession and Kevin Ramakrishna is a recent grad and administrator of this BLOG!

  2. The distinction made here between theoretical and experienced-based learning is,I think, a false one. it is assumed that all of us have certain common goals, an important one being insuring that our students leave law school with the knowledge to be skilled attorneys. Assuming that’s the goal, the question becomes how we do that when students are under our wings. I’d suggest that some of the skills our students need Are absorbed better through a more traditional method while others require students to be “in role” for optimum learning to occur. It is true that good arguments can be made for folding all of law school pedagogy into the practical, the way it was done before the big business of law schools was created. But that’s not necessarily on the table these days, even among the more innovative schools such as Northeastern.

  3. […] Practices for Legal Education, The reality of the Socratic Method, A Response. Frankly, I don’t know why the Socratic method couldn’t be used on the practical level […]

  4. I would like to see some solid empirical evidence that the Socratic method really teaches students to “think on their feet.”

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