What Is the Law School Socratic Method?

There are a lot of potential points of anxiety for 1L students in law school. Feelings of excitement and nervousness tend to build up during the summer and culminate in the first day of class. One of the biggest sources of fear for new students is the infamous Socratic Method, which has long found a home in law school classes across the country. In this article I will explain what the Socratic Method is, and why you shouldn’t be worried about it!

What Is the Socratic Method? An Introduction to its Philosophical Origins

If you guessed that the Socratic Method has something to do with the famous philosopher Socrates, your right! Way back in the day Socrates made use of a teaching method in which he would ask his students a seemingly unending number of questions until he found a contradiction in the student’s initial assumption. The goal was to teach his students to think and learn for themselves, and to create critical thinkers.

Many traditional classroom teaching styles are somewhat unengaging by design but this is where the Socratic Method shines. The typical style of teaching you are probably used to is an hour or so long class period where the professor may read off a PowerPoint or explain topics on a whiteboard, and break-up parts of the lecture with in-class assignments. Rarely will the professor ask a student’s opinion or ask for an explanation of a subject. Instead students usually communicate with the professor only to ask a question. At the end of class the professor will usually assign a homework assignment. At the end of the semester, grades are usually divided up between exams, homework, classroom attendance, and perhaps a few other miscellaneous assignments thrown in.

How Professors Apply the Socratic Method in Modern Law Schools

It’s impossible to describe exactly how law school classes are taught with a blanket definition of the Socratic Method. This is because there is no exact standard that every professor at every law school must follow. Different professors employ the Socratic Method to different degrees, and some don’t at all. In the past the Socratic Method was pretty much universally applied in Law School, however today things are very different. Most classrooms today do not operate with an objective to embarrass a student if they forget to do the reading (you definitely should). Most professors are less confrontational and somewhat more forgiving than in the past.

Typically a professor employing the Socratic Method will pick a student and ask him/her a series of questions about a case. The point of this questioning is not simply just to test the knowledge of the student, but to also stimulate quick and critical thinking. Some professors will create and publish a list of what week a student will be “on call”, others will use a more traditional approach and randomly call on students every seminar.

Real-life Experiences: Tales of Socratic Method Professors in Law School

That being said, over the past two years I have experienced ALL KINDS of professors and teaching styles. One I remember quite clearly because of how big of an asshole he was. My friend prepared for class everyday, but she was very nervous to be cold-called by this guy because he was extremely demeaning and rude. Well, professor cold-called her and she froze when he asked her a very basic question about a case. After a five second pause he asked “do you really not know the answer to this question?” She remained frozen for another five to ten seconds so he moved on to his next victim. The vast majority of my professors have been respectful and understanding in their cold-calls, but every now and then I have gotten a professor like him.

Why Do Law Schools Use the Socratic Method? Unpacking the Benefits

The Socratic Method is used in Law School for several reasons. It can seem like an unfair and confrontational teaching method initially, but it has many benefits. When a professor utilizes the Socratic Method correctly, it is an excellent tool that helps develop skills necessary for the practice of law.

First and foremost it encourages students to develop critical thinking skills, to think more deeply into the law, and to consider various viewpoints. In a good seminar, just when you think you have discovered the right answer, your professor will hit you or a classmate with a question or a hypothetical that makes you reconsider your entire idea on the topic. You will learn that there are always two sides to an issue, and perhaps more than two in more divided legal opinions. Finding the strengths and weaknesses of an argument are incredibly important for would-be attorneys, and the environment of a law class is an excellent venue to help develop this skill. I am not afraid to admit that more than once in my Torts class my professor would ask me “what is your opinion on ….?” At which point I would say that “my opinion was xyz, but now after your questions I think I have changed my mind.”

Another advantage of the Socratic Method is that it helps develop quick-thinking skills in students. Obviously, most law students are quite intelligent people before they walk into a 1L law class, and consequentially many are relatively quick-thinkers. However, quick-thinking is like a muscle, and constant practice can make it much stronger. The experience of being put on the spot and having to respond to a quick series of questions requires a student to think fast on their feet. This is a skill that if developed, brings with it an enormous amount of rewards in a courtroom setting.

Why 1L Students Are Nervous About the Socratic Method

It’s New

The Socratic Method is usually completely new to 1L students, I had never seen it used in any of my undergrad classes and had never heard of anyone learning by this method in any other class. This is a big reason why it’s so scary for many students, anything completely new can seem daunting at first.

How it’s illustrated

Have you ever seen the Paper Chase before? If you have, that alone should be more than enough to give you a negative view of the Socratic Method. I mean the main character runs out of class on the first day of class after he is thoroughly humiliated by his law professor. Even worse, he spends the next part of the scene puking away his shame in the nearest bathroom. That movie is enough to intimidate many anxious new students. This was my first experience with the Socratic Method, as I watched it during my summer before my 1L year. No need to fear however, as law classes are not nearly as bad as how they have been portrayed by Hollywood.

I’ll be honest, your probably going to have one or two law professors that live up to the stereotypes, but overall a law seminar is no where near as bad as you may have heard if your willing to do the work.

Preparing for the Socratic Method: Practical Tips for Success

The Socratic Method may be intimidating, but it’s also an opportunity for growth. Knowing how to navigate this teaching style can give you a significant edge. Here are some practical tips to help you prepare for the Socratic Method in law school:

For God’s Sake Do the Reading

No, don’t just do the reading. You should be “actively reading” to help you absorb the enormous amount of information you will be attempting to take in. Summarize the information, highlight the important points, and go over it a second time if you don’t completely understand the case. The people who really get ripping in cold calls are the ones that either 1) did not do the reading and try to hide that fact from the professor by furiously skimming the case or 2) quimbee cases.

If you have not heard of quimbee yet you will, it is an extremely helpful resource for law students that want to conserve their time and energy on other things besides studying 24/7. However there is a huge caveat, it tends to make law students really lazy. Many quimbee students never even open the textbook in classes such as Constitutional Law and Torts. The problem is that quimbee just summarizes some of the main points, and when your professor cold calls you they expect you to have read the case to a significantly greater depth.

Avoid Relying Too Much On Laptops

Nothing worse than a cold call catching you when you were not paying attention because you were surfing Amazon or watching videos on YouTube (sometimes guilty of this myself). My first semester of 1L year I had a strict no laptop policy, I never brought my laptop once to school. I think it helped tremendously because I was never tempted to surf the internet for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Trust me that you will not only have a huge advantage over your inattentive classmates when it comes time to take the exam but your professor will be impressed because you were paying attention and handled their cold calls well.

Actively Pay Attention In Class

It’s extremely important to stay involved during class. Whether that means taking notes, asking questions or sharing your opinion, you need to be involved. I am guilty of a little hypocrisy here because I have difficulty paying attention to anything for longer than five minutes or so. I frequently fidget, draw or even read for other classes when I am in class. However we are talking about best practices here and I have been made to look like a fool on more than one occasion when my professor caught me not paying attention with a cold call. A bonus reason to pay attention is that the vast majority of the questions on the exam will have been at least mentioned during class, so if you payed attention you will have a leg up on many other students.

Know Your Material Inside Out

The first line of defense against an intense Socratic grilling is to be well-prepared. Make sure you’ve not only read but deeply understood the cases, laws, or theories that will be discussed in class.

Engage in Active Listening

While you might not be the one on the Socratic hot seat at all times, it’s crucial to listen to your classmates’ interactions with the professor. You’ll often gain new perspectives that can enrich your understanding of the material.

Be Open-Minded

The Socratic Method is designed to make you question your assumptions and consider various angles of an argument. Enter each class with an open mind, ready to have your initial opinions challenged.

Take Detailed Notes

Your class notes should be more than just a summary of what’s discussed; they should also capture the different viewpoints, questions, and hypotheticals that arise during the Socratic questioning. These notes can be incredibly helpful when you review material for exams.

Speak Clearly and Thoughtfully

When you’re called upon, take a moment to gather your thoughts before answering. Being clear and precise in your responses will not only demonstrate your understanding but also earn you the respect of your professors and peers.

By preparing in this way, you’ll find that the Socratic Method becomes less of a fear-inducing obstacle and more of an invaluable tool for your legal education.


As you embark on your law school journey, understanding the Socratic Method can go a long way in alleviating your anxieties and setting you up for success. I hope this article has helped uncover the true nature of the Socratic method. It really isn’t all that bad and once you develop some familiarity with it, you might even notice that it makes class more interesting.

By embracing this teaching method’s challenges and opportunities, you’re not only equipping yourself with crucial skills but also gaining a broader understanding of the law from multiple perspectives.

So, if you’ve been apprehensive about encountering the Socratic Method in your 1L classes, I hope this guide has offered some reassurance and practical tips to prepare you effectively. The key is active engagement, thorough preparation, and an open mind.

Check out some of our other great articles here!

Stephen Metellus

I am a 3L law student in Washington D.C and owner of theartoflawschool.com! I started law school with a lot of hopes and expectations, and it has certainly been a wild ride from the start! My goal is writing articles that help you in navigating through law school.

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