Method: Socratic

(a.k.a. the Case Method)

It is important to keep in mind that, at least in theory, the Socratic Method and the Case Method are two different things.

The Case Method is the building block of most law school classes. The idea is to teach about how to determine and analyze rules by reading appellate court cases (or abridgements of them). For an example of how this works, click HERE

A Socratic dialogue, strictly speaking, is a series of questions asked by the professor to a student (usually a single student). The questions, if framed properly, help the student learn how to analyze the issue at hand. That is, instead of giving the student content (e.g., a rule), the professor asks a series of questions that guide the student to the content. If successful, the student not only learns the content, but learns the skill of determining the content himself or herself. Similarly, a well-framed Socratic dialogue can help the student comprehend, apply, synthesize, and even evaluate legal rules.

It is worth noting that, even if done in this fashion, the other students in the class benefit only to the extent that they can follow along with the dialogue — i.e., passively and vicariously. The hope is that all students will learn in a parallel fashion from any given exchange between student and instructor.

Very few law professors use the Socratic method in this “pure” fashion. Rather, they use the Case Method in a fashion that involves questioning students to help them explore the rules that may be derived from various appellate cases.

This Case/Socratic Method exposes students to a uniform body of information through assigned readings and oral instruction, presented in an instructor-controlled time frame. Principles of law are taught by requiring students to analyze abridgments of appellate cases in combination with the Socratic method of questioning the student.

Advocates contend that the Case/Socratic Method:

  • Teaches the inductive method used by the attorney to read and understand cases, to discern the rules of law and so best directly teaches the ability to “think like a lawyer”;
  • Provides the appropriate and actual environment for students to learn to apply the law in a factual circumstance, albeit a rigorously edited factual circumstance;
  • Demonstrates most clearly by analysis and synthesis of cases and rules from cases that law is a growing, changing body of doctrine;
  • Because students are required to respond to the Professor’s questions the format forces the student into an active learning mode where the student and the class have to apply some knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis and perhaps synthesis to answer the questions and solve the immediate problem posed by the professor; and

Is more stimulating and interesting to students than other methods.
The Case/Socratic Method has been challenged by a number of education experts. To see the critiques that have been leveled at this method of teaching, click HERE.

However, variations on this method will be used by a number of your professors with an eye to helping you develop your legal skills. Thus, we have provided an example of how this method might be used to teach the case of People v. Arcane.

Click HERE to read the case, Arcane v. People

Click HERE to read a critique Socratic questioning

Click HERE to go to the class discussion of the case.