Room for Debate: Rethinking How The Law Is Taught

December 17th, 2011

The Room for Debate: Rethinking How the Law Is Taught considers the vitality of the Socratic Method.

A recent Times editorial called for changes to legal education. It argued for “apprentice-style learning” and “more courses that train students” for roles as “advocates and counselors, negotiators and deal-shapers, and problem-solvers” instead of a curriculum where professors grill “students about appellate cases.”

Does the Socratic method still have a role in law school?

 One of the great joys of teaching first-year law students is the privilege of bearing witness to the transformation of their minds during the course of the semester or year. You can almost see the metaphoric light bulbs flash as the students acquire a new set of critical thinking skills. In my view, the Socratic method is the most effective and efficient way of imparting these skills to first-year law students. Among other things, they learn to ask different types of questions; to ask questions in a different way; and to distinguish relevant from irrelevant facts. They learn to be self-sufficient independent thinkers. As a teacher, a law professor, I am always awed by this transformation, which I think is unique to the first year.
Socratic teaching needs to be supplemented by experiential pedagogies, including simulations, role-plays, small-group brainstorming [something I want to do with technology problems], the problem method and live-client clinical legal education. These methods are better at facilitating the law student’s ability to learn how to solve legal problems, understand the different real-world contexts in which legal problems arise (including non-adversarial and transactional settings), explore the nature of various lawyer-client relationships, consider social justice implications of law and legal relationships, and develop self-reflectiveness and the ability to learn from experience.
Challenging through questioning is the living practice of teaching critical thinking by modeling it as an instructor. It is the heart of the elenctic method. It is how we teach new lawyers to compose with the language of the law, not just how to bang out a few tunes.
That said, what we once called Socratic teaching in law schools is indeed a thing of the past, for a simple reason: It was premised on two assumptions about the nature of law, which are simply no longer believed by most of the legal professoriate. First, Socratic teaching, as well as the “case method” that accompanied it, was premised on the Langdellian assumption that the “law” consists foremost of the principles and rules explicit in or implied by the opinions generated by appellate courts. Today this strikes many law professors as demonstrably false: whatever was the case in 1900, our law today consists primarily of statutes and regulations generated by democratically elected bodies and administrative agencies, and secondarily of judicial interpretations of those texts by appellate courts. Courts interpret that law, with varying degrees of discretion, but the “common law” originating from, as well as interpreted by judges, is dwindling, both in size and importance.Second, Socratic teaching was premised upon an assumption that the legal principles imminent in the existing common law were overwhelmingly just, as well as complete. That moral optimism regarding the perfection of the common law now seems quite misplaced. The common law might be improved upon marginally by the principles unearthed through Socratic interrogation. A truly critical legal thinker, however, whether in the law schools or in practice, who entertains the possibility of fundamental or widespread legal injustice, must have the capacity to step outside of even the best possible articulation of the law’s premises.

But for more than a century, the critical thinking skills inculcated by the Socratic method have been the great strength of American legal education. Over the last 25 years I have interviewed literally thousands of lawyers in virtually every kind of legal practice — including those who are not practicing law at all — and while many did not enjoy law school, the vast majority point to the critical thinking skills that they developed there as being the single most important and lasting value of their legal education. It is not surprising that country after country — and many other parts of the university — have abandoned the passive lecture method of instruction in favor of something like the participatory and interactive classroom dynamic developed in U.S. law schools.
This sets up a false dichotomy–passive lecturing, or socratic dialogue. There is a different way, with technology. I really think the dogmatism for established practices is more a product of a lack of imagination than a sober appraisal of their actual value. Let’s see if I can mix things up.