Your First Law School Class

What's the Socratic Method?

The style of teaching utilized by most law school professors and the way law students prepare for class and study for exams is much different from undergraduate education. The teaching method used in law school may be distressing to some students. The current approach (referred to as the Socratic Method) was developed in the 1870's by Dean Langdell of Harvard Law School. The basis of the method is to use actual cases, which students examine to determine the relevant rule of law that was used to resolve the dispute. Then, the scope and breadth of the rule is tested by reading other cases, or by the use of hypothetical cases put to the students by the professor and analyzed in the course of a “Socratic” dialogue conducted between teacher and student.

The Socratic method encourages competition to answer the professor’s questions and to criticize the remarks of other students. Usually the professor makes few evaluative comments about any student’s performance in class. The risk of embarrassment from being asked to respond in front of other students, and not knowing the answers and/or being criticized by the professor or other students is disconcerting to many students. Remember, however, you are not alone. Each and every one of your classmates will get the opportunity to fumble his or her response to the professor’s questions. 

The complexity, uncertainty, and sometimes the inconsistency of the law are also very disturbing to many students who come to law school expecting the law to be logically consistent and certain. The teaching methods used result in having many questions raised, but few answered. Issues are analyzed from different points of view without any conclusion as to which point of view is “right.” This open-endedness and ambiguity are very frustrating to a large number of students who want to know what the answer is. The answer is most often: “It depends.”

How to Take Effective Notes:

Before Class Begins

Arrive 5 minutes early
During Class
Use your case briefs to record the important points made during class discussion.
Correct and/or add to your briefs. Try not to rewrite information that is already contained in your briefs.
Format Class Notes
Goal: Choose a format that will result in a set of notes that YOU will be able to use later for review.
Things to consider when choosing a particular format
By typing your brief, your handwritten notes will dramatically reflect how your understanding of the case changed or remained the same.

Your handwritten notes also signal how must time the professor spent on a particular topic.

What to Write Down

Hypotheticals/Examples posed by professor
What your professor writes on the board
Summaries given by professor at beginning or end of class (verbatim)
Rationale/Public Policy behind rules
Definitions and Rules
“Magic Words”

What if there is no resolution or conclusion to a question posed by a professor?

Make a note of the fact that no conclusion was reached and leave some space to fill in later.
Example of Notes - 2 inch margin on left.pdf17.29 KB
Example of notes - columns.pdf57.21 KB
Example of notes - split page.pdf55.47 KB
Example of notes - wide margin to right.pdf54.49 KB