The debate about the overall value of the Socratic method in law school classrooms is continuing. Overall, it is exciting that there finally seems to be some dialogue and introspection centered around the teaching methods used by law schools. Unfortunately, any changes that may arise will likely be “too little, too late” for many law recent law school graduates.
How the Socratic Method Works in Top Online Law Schools
As we’ve shared with you on our blog, during our webinars, and in our admissions events for prospective applicants and orientation events for new students, we believe that there is tremendous value associated with the Socratic method, which is the process by which students use their reasoning skills to form conclusions. Such conclusions can be answers to questions posed about a case students read, or in response to a wide variety of questions that might be posed in our online law school classes (in our case given our emphasis on a practical education, students could expect a question like “Why would you recommend that your client sign this contract without modifying the indemnifications section?” as opposed to a question like “What was the court’s holding?”).
Using the Socratic method in our online law school classes ensures that students are forced to analyze the given facts, quickly reach a conclusion based on their legal knowledge and the facts, and then be forced to “pressure-test” that conclusion by being subjected to a variety of questions (i.e., “Would still recommend that your client sign if we struck this clause?”).
How Law Schools Use the Case Method and the Socratic Method in their Law Classes
The “Case Method” is generally the process by which students learn the law by reading a series of cases, which are chosen to demonstrate the evolution of a particular area of law, as well as the different approaches taken by varying courts. By reading cases, students can learn the nuances of how courts can mold a set of facts to fit the rule, and also learn more about how courts apply a set of facts to the applicable legal rule.
When the “Socratic Method” is tied to the “Case Method,” after reading the cases, students are then questioned, using the Socratic Method described above, regarding the cases.
In our online law courses, we use the Case Method, but in a much different manner. Rather than making students read a wide variety of cases in order to try to figure out what the applicable rule of law is, we first teach students the legal rule, and then we select cases that serve as examples of the rule in practice. Therefore, rather than leaving students with 5 different cases that all reach different legal conclusions, we first ground them in what the rule is, and provide background about how the rule works, so that they can then read the cases in a more thoughtful, valuable manner.
The St. Francis Difference
If one were to conduct a law school comparison, it’s safe to say that 95% of a student’s first year is spent reading cases. At St. Francis, that figure is much lower (although it tends to vary between courses). For our first year law school courses, the figure is closer to 20-25%. The rest of the time is spent engaged in learning what the rules are, and on exercises designed to assist students in applying the rules to a given set of facts. In addition, our first year law school curriculum is very writing intensive, so students are also focusing on how to write concise answers that help them pass the Baby Bar.
Hopefully, this is a useful “quick glance” guide to what the Socratic and case methods are, as well as how we integrate both into our rigorous online law school curriculum.