Posted by: scottishboomerang | March 19, 2008

Gunners Don’t Get Called On: Making Sense of the Socratic Method


 This guy looks a bit like one of my professors…


I am the first to admit my legal education has been…er…unorthodox.

In the UK, the accepted way of training a lawyer is to sit through an LLB whereby you are taught law like any any other academic discipline in the humanities. You are expected to become a jurist, an intellectual, a legal philospher.  After that, you do a one year legal practice course in which you learn stuff like oral advocacy and contract drafting. Then you have to take a 2 year training contract (for would be solictors) or a one-year pupilage (for would be baristers in which (as the celebrated legal blogger Baby Barista put it) you make coffee for the rich and powerful, and and a summer job at Starbucks would probably be of more practical value than the LPC or the BVC.  Of course, there is much merit in this way of training. Theoretically at least, it ensures that there is sufficient oversight from experienced legal practicioners over new ones at the start of their career.  The drawbacks I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Accustomed to the grecian graces of European academia, I had no reason to suppose that the academic environment of an American style law school would be any different. And I was on a Masters programme. No one was training me to be a lawyer.  I went in a scholar, and came out as a practicioner.  Sitting on many of the modules I took were Juris Doctor students and the classes had a distinctly JD flavour. I learned here about the Socratic Method, US Style,  the preferred way of making sure that students do the reading before class.

Allow me to explain.

Socrates was a Greek philosopher whose teaching style greatly influenced European universities in the way they teach the humanities. A form of philosophical enquiry, it involves two speakers – usually the teacher is the Questioner although in a Socratic dialogue between peers both speakers question and answer each other. In fact I would say that I am involved in a socratic intellectual enquiry everytime Mr Boomerang and I have a discussion on anything.  When I studied philosophy at St Andrews, the lectures or tutors would use this method to explore various moral or ethical topics. The Socratic method, though, is not often employed in US undergraduate education ( and sadly, its getting that way in our schools and universities too).  The chief benefit of  Socratic enquiry is that it develops critical thinking skills.

In US Law Schools, the meaning of the Socratic Method has more restrictive meaning. You can hear some students complaining about it in this video:

At the Love&Justice interviews, talking about the demands of the LPC and holding down a full time job, I mentioned I had held down full-time teaching while attending 16 hours of classes a week, all of which required case-briefing.  My fellow applicant asked me what case briefing was. I explain that before each class in a US law school (at least, this was the case in Handong) we were given five or six controling judicial opinions to read, which we had to summarise,  identify the issues, the holdings and the controlling and emerging rules of law, and if the professor was feeling particularly vicious, also research the subsequent case activity as it was applied through the courts. The lecturer would then pick students at random to brief the case before the class and grill them on the case for up to forty minutes.  If you hadn’t prepared, you were asked to leave. She looked at me in horror.  I asked how she had been taught during her British LLB. “Well, you know, we sat in a lecture.”

It’s clear that the Socratic Method employed in US law schools is far more agressive than anything gentle, ironic ol’ Socrates would have done himself, and a far cry from the Socratic Enquiry used in my many philosophy sessions at university. (Remember too, that red wine would come into the European enquiries a lot more. My tutor liked to hold his tutorials in the pub, like a good British academic. But I digress).  For  me, I enjoyed the challenge. It also clear that there’s nothing like it for training a legal mind or developing specific skills in oral advocacy and legal reasoning, and most students find the process traumatic. If ever I’m in the position of being a professor, I’m going to use it, or a modified version of it (obviously I am not going to traumatise my students. This is Blighty after all, and it just wouldn’t be cricket).

I lamented – and perhaps I still do – the lack of jurisprudence and real intellectual enquiry in the American legal training. This is perhaps why the best scholarship in law comes out of Europe, and not out of America.  But the American method is first rate in training deadly advocates.  I’m supremely glad I get the best of both worlds, studying under the solid academic training provided in Europe and the razor-sharp adovacy and reasoning skills you get with the American system.

The lack of intellectual pursuit (no-one has time to look into the deeper meaning of the law when you have 50 pages of cases to brief) and the pressure results in a shrinking of ones circle and universe. It was particularly acute at Handong, where we were also walled up on a campus in the middle of rice paddies with no where to go.  What this video says about law school is true of Handong apart from the sex and booze – because basically we lived 4 to a room and there was no alchohol allowed on campus – about the high-school like mentality. The gossiping and bullying drove me nuts. I refused to participate in it and was “punished” by being made the target of gossiping and malicious rumour as a result.    Apparently its the same at other US-style law schools too (although I do think the distinctly Korean flavour of mine, coupled with its geographical isolation, would have made these law schools look like a cake-walk in comparison).

I am though, still a scholar at heart, interested in the bigger picture, in the deeper questions. And I suppose that’s why I recognised myself in the video below, as the “Gunner” at law school. Scholars and Practitioners are not always the best of pals.

But something else is also true.  Gunner’s don’t get called on in class.

I’ll suppress the urge to blow a raspberry at all those kids in that video.


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