Some people think that lawyers walk around with a long catalog of laws in their heads, able to answer any legal question at the drop of a hat.
The truth is that legal questions almost never have black and white answers. The true work of a lawyer isn’t memorizing laws, but rather understanding legal principles and how to apply them to a wide range of different factual situations. This ability is called “thinking like a lawyer,” and it is perhaps the most important thing you will learn in law school.
So how does law school teach you to think like a lawyer? Most law professors use a teaching technique called the Socratic Method. Here’s how it differs from what you are used to in your undergraduate courses:
|Undergraduate Teaching Technique||
Law School Teaching
|Professors assign reading material that thoroughly explains a given concept.||
Professors assign reading material, but most of the time it won’t directly explain a concept. Instead, it will be a series of judicial opinions issued by real courts in real cases.
|Class time is spent going over what you have read in more detail.||
The professor will ask you a series of questions in an effort to get you to explain it yourself. This back and forth dialogue is the heart of the Socratic Method.
“The Socratic method challenges me to deepen my understanding of legal concepts and develop my legal analysis,” current University of La Verne College of Law student, Shannon Shafron-Perez, shares. “By engaging in discussions with professors who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the conversation, I have gained insight into concepts that would otherwise not be available in the traditional lecture environment.”
The Socratic Method was named for Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher who was known for teaching his pupils by asking a series of questions, slowly leading the pupil to contradict himself and forcing him to reframe his arguments. Using this method, Socrates taught his pupils how to reason logically and think critically.
Law professors use the Socratic Method to help students learn to tease out the reasoning and legal principles that went into a given judicial decision and also to make educated arguments about how that reasoning and those principles would apply if the facts were different.
In a typical law school class, the professor will:
- Call on a student, usually at random.
- Ask the student to recite the facts and holding of a case.
- Pose a series of questions meant to elicit why the case was decided in a particular way.
- Challenge the student to speculate on how the result would have been different, were the facts different.
And, all of this happens in front of the entire class. In fact, the first few times a student experiences the Socratic Method can be intimidating.
No Right Answers
It can be challenging, but the method helps us become better lawyers,” Shafron-Perez adds. “When we are asked to answer hypothetical problems in class, the professor’s guided questioning not only leads us to an answer, but also models the analysis required to arrive at that answer. As a 1L, my sole focus was finding the ‘right’ answer. Now I realize that there is no ‘right’ answer, only reasonable answers derived from sound legal analysis.”
Dos, Don’ts and Tips
While this may sound overwhelming, there are a few things you can do to ease some of the pressure:
- Be thoroughly prepared for every class. This means not only doing all of the assigned reading, but also briefing the cases; that is, writing down the facts, holding, and reasoning so you won’t have to scramble to remember them when you’re called on.
- Practice asking yourself questions about why the case was decided in a certain way and which facts seemed essential to the result. This will insure that you have a thorough understanding of the material and make it easier for you to think on your feet if you’re asked to start speculating about different results.
- Stay calm and relaxed. Remember that the point of the Socratic Method isn’t to find some mysterious “right” answer but to teach you how lawyers think about legal questions. In fact, more often than not, there is no right answer. You’ll think more clearly if you don’t panic in a vain attempt not to say the wrong thing.
The Socratic Method can be frightening, especially when you’re new to law school, but it can also be an invigorating intellectual exercise that will stimulate your mind and get you started on your way to “thinking like a lawyer.”