The Socratic Method: Why It's Important to the Study of Law

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. - Socrates

The Socratic method is iconic in American legal education and is both revered by academics and feared by students.

In classes that employ the Socratic method, a professor will typically ask a student a series of questions about a case that are designed to stimulate critical thought and force the student to work through thorny issues. Sometimes, the result of the questioning is to demonstrate that a rule cannot be applied in a black-and-white manner to all situations, or to reveal the judicial challenge in crafting appropriate rules and definitions. Through this process, the student gains a deeper understanding of the material and the nuances involved. The lack of conclusions or clear answers in a class employing the Socratic method is unsurprising, of course, given the origins of the Socratic method.

Where did the Socratic method come from?

There is some debate about which ancient Greek intellectual should be credited with the “invention” of the method. It is clear, however, that the method is named for Socrates, the classic Athenian philosopher, who lived from 469 B.C. to 399 B.C. Most are acquainted with Socrates through the work of his student, Plato, who wrote a famous series of “dialogues” based on Socrates’ habit of questioning and debating others about philosophical matters.

In a typical Socratic dialogue, Socrates will ask a person to define a generalized and ambiguous concept, such as piety or love. After the answer is given, Socrates will follow up with another question aimed at revealing a contradiction in the response, an exception to it, or something else that is problematic. The questioning and answering then continues until one has the impression that there are no clear answers.

A similar dialogue takes place in an American law school classroom. But instead of an inquiry into issues of piety or love, the participants investigate a particular case or line of cases. Hypotheticals may be used to challenge the student’s understanding and to push the limits of the courts ruling.

Why is the Socratic method used?

The Socratic method is still in use because it develops a number of skills and is an excellent instructional tool.

The first and most obvious benefit is that it teaches students to think quickly. The questions posed by professors during class are designed to demonstrate an understanding (or lack thereof) of the issues in play in a particular case. For students, the experience of being put on the spot is a lot like the experience of representing a client in a courtroom or leading a corporate negotiation. The student can’t truly prepare for the professor’s questions and must respond to them as they come. For those without experience in debate or argumentative analysis, the Socratic method challenges the student to be quick-witted and challenged them to carefully articulate their thoughts.

The second skill students develop through use of the Socratic method is critical thinking. In many of the classic cases studied in law school, for instance in the field of Constitutional Law, the dissent presents a case that is analytically as strong as (if not stronger than) the majority opinion. Students working through Socratic questioning will learn that there are two or more sides to almost any issue, and a competent lawyer is able to persuasively articulate all of them. In order to develop into such an attorney, students must become skilled at finding the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments and positions. The rapid-fire questioning of the Socratic method is perfect for sharpening this skill.

As a final note: many are scared of the Socratic method, but need not be. Today, most schools use it in a way that is neither fearsome nor intended to embarrass anyone. But students will forever be nervous about it because of this dramatic scene from The Paper Chase (if you dare).

Rest assured, very few teachers are really like that.