Deborah Maranville, Lisa Radtke Bliss, Carolyn Wilkes Kaas & Antoinette Sedillo López



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The Socratic method, one of Langdell’s most well-entrenched reforms to legal education, remains the law’s signature pedagogical technique. Although the term means different things to different people, its essence in the law school classroom is student analysis of cases led by a teacher, who calls on students to articulate gradually deeper understandings of a legal doctrine or theory.

Socratic learning requires students to think on the spot, answer precisely, and take intellectual risks. For over a decade now, the Socratic method has been out of fashion among those who write about legal pedagogy. In addition, the method’s critics describe what they view as the alienation and humiliation of students, an inattention to legal theory and professionalism, and a lack of clear learning outcomes.

Indeed, both Best Practices for Legal Education and Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law criticized or downplayed the value of the Socratic method. Best Practices concluded that the Socratic method should be “used sparingly.”

These critiques undervalue the Socratic method. As the Carnegie Report acknowledged, the Socratic method is an easily scalable, effective, deeply engaging way to achieve active student learning, particularly but not only in larger doctrinal classes. Similarly, Best Practices recognized that “[t]ailored and applied flexibly, the case method . . . can provide a logical, overall methodology for approaching and thinking about all sorts of situations.” Those positive findings remain true. The Socratic method gives students a strong incentive to prepare well for class every day, and during class it forces both students and the teacher to focus intensely, to listen to others, and to express their ideas in a cogent, persuasive, and professional manner.

These qualities—thorough preparation, focus, listening skills, cogent analysis, and good judgment—are fundamental to successful lawyering. Finally, contrary to its reputation, the Socratic method is also a wonderful way to create a sense of community and shared learning purpose among students, even in a large class. These attributes of Socratic teaching look even stronger in comparison with the most commonly used alternative—lectures, perhaps punctuated by text-heavy PowerPoint slides.

Indeed, while the method has fallen from favor in law schools, cutting-edge colleges are now seeking to expand Socratic-type interactive teaching in order to raise the level of engagement among students. In recognition of the continuing centrality and vitality of the Socratic method, this section therefore focuses on best practices for optimizing the effectiveness of this active learning style. The basics of the Socratic method are well described elsewhere (and will have been experienced by almost all readers of this volume).Therefore, this section will not describe the methodology in detail. Instead, it will situate the Socratic method within a framework describing the level of active learning of the most frequently used pedagogical techniques in the non-clinical law school classroom. Then it will focus on three fundamental tools for creating and maintaining a successful course that uses the Socratic method for active learning.

Title of Book

Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World



Publication Date


Document Type

Book Chapter


Carolina Academic Press


Durham, NC


Legal Education

The Socratic Method

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