Thursday, January 08, 2004

Great Law Schools - "Advice" for Law Students - Socratic Method


To begin with, first see What Makes a Great Law School? by Tamar Frankel in the Boston University School of Law Working Paper Series, Public Law & Legal Theory, Working Paper No. 01-13. Hopefully, that article should reduce some of the competitive friction which sometimes exists between the law schools and should explain to some degree why things are the way they are as far as law schools are concerned.

Whether YOUR law school is a "great" law school in the last analysis, in the opinion of LawPundit, depends on YOU.

Nevertheless, the link below may contain some tips to improve YOUR law school experience.

"Advice" from gTexts

gTexts (Garrett Moritz) at this link contains thought-provoking "Advice for Law Students". [Note: The gTexts blog has moved in 2004 to http://www.gtexts.com/. As of January 7, 2004, the link used above still functioned.]

LawPundit is of the view that gTexts has a strong comprehension of the strengths of the Case Method and Socratic Method in law study, about which we would like to make some additional observations. But first - a nice explanation from Dr Robert H Woods, Jr, J.D.: in his article "'Order in the Virtual Law Classroom...Order in the Virtual Law Classroom': A Closer Look at American Law Schools in Cyberspace: Constructing Multiple Instructional Strategies for Effective Internet-based Legal Education" as published in JILT, Journal of Information, Law and Technology:

"At the heart of the case study method is the Socratic dialogue, where the instructor through rigorous question and answer actively encourages, prods, and manoeuvres students to analyze the facts, issues, rules of law, and reasoning behind the courts' decisions. In the process, the law professor may 'hide the ball', as it were, as knowledge of Black letter law is constructed, deconstructed, and re-constructed again via faculty-to-student and student-to-student exchanges designed to analyze and compare existing case law before synthesizing it with the whole . The case study method thus operates significantly in a constructivist learning environment, which places emphasis on relationships, collaboration, inquiry and student invention."

Some Thoughts on the Socratic Method from LawPundit

In the opinion of LawPundit, the Socratic Method - properly applied - is an excellent - but of course, not exclusive - learning tool. It is a method which we in modern times might dub "on-your-toes interactive learning", through which both the "discoursing participants" as well as the "spectating viewers" also learn (or can learn). This learning is done by trying to activate something called "critical thinking" (note - what is the difference between "thinking" and "critical thinking"?) and not by rote memorization of a string of alleged "facts", which in computer-speak is called "saving to the hard disk", i.e. which is nothing more than simple recordation.

Negative Aspects of the Socratic Method

There has been some negative discussion about the Socratic Method on some blawgs in the past, see e.g. here and here.

Of course, we readily admit that - as in any method of teaching - there are strengths and weaknesses to Socratic dialogue, and much in teaching is a matter of personal preference, modern developments in education and technology. Obviously, the Socratic Method should NOT involve teachers verbally browbeating weaker students into submission - and those teachers who have done this have not understood the purpose or "art" of this method. We can also agree that there ARE subjects, such as "Evidence", where the Socratic Method is not always appropriate for the entire semester of study. In addition, there are "clinical" courses such as the LawPundit himself teaches, i.e. legal research and legal writing, which are "nuts and bolts" practical law and which are not conducive to Socratic dialogue.

So what is the place of Socratic dialogue in law?

The Socratic Method prepares for "the Real World"

The real world is not "clear as glass" in many respects and the law is therefore also seldom "absolutely clear". Even the commandment against killing is seen by most people to allow for exceptions in the case of war. And what about self-defense? Hence, the law is seldom black and white - rather, it is mostly grey. There are always ... exceptions.

If there were no grey areas in fact or in law, we would not need lawyers or judges. Rather, in any dispute, for example, we could just plug "facts" and "laws" into a computer programmed for decision-making and wait for print-outs of the resulting decision. But this would be naive. Real life can not be that easily compartmentalized. Real life is marked by many options, uncertainties, and grey areas. It is the view of LawPundit that the Socratic Method is the best way of teaching young minds how to deal with these indeterminate realities - i.e. ACTIVE rather than passive learning.

But - may I say - this is simply our opinion at LawPundit. Others may not share it.

Positive Aspects of the Socratic Method

Reasons for supporting the Socratic Method in teaching are found in these articles for further reading:

See Does the Socratic Method Work? - An Experiment

See Chicago Law School

See Socratic Teaching

See Education and Teaching

See productive discomfort

See what do you think?.

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