Welcome to Law School – The Socratic Method



Tar Heels catching the 99% solar eclipse




After nearly a week of settling in and exploring the town of Chapel Hill (and getting to see a 98% solar eclipse), the time came to begin our instruction at Carolina Law.

Monday started with us exchange students being allocated time to recite the Carolina Pledge along with the incoming first-year law students (or 1Ls). Martin H. Brinkley, the Dean of the Law School, and Resident Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour (equivalent to an English Crown Court Judge) led the class in the recitation of the Law School’s over 100-year-old promise, in which students pledge to act with honesty and integrity.



Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, the main building at UNC Law




This was followed by a week of information about all aspects of law school life, from how to use the library catalogue and who to see about careers advice to where to buy food on campus.

One of the most important aspects of the first week for 1Ls and exchange students alike was the sample Socratic class.
The Socratic method is the predominant teaching style in American law schools. It is focused around the reading of cases and other primary material, rather than a regular textbook as you would find in UK law schools (in fact, most American law textbooks are really just casebooks, providing students with excerpts of famous cases along with some comments and notes). Students are expected to read and brief a case, meaning they have to clearly outline the parties, procedural history, issues and outcomes of a case.
All this is done in preparation for the most notable aspect of the Socratic method: the call. During class, the professor will call on a student and quiz them on any and all aspects of a case, sometimes for the duration of an entire class.

While this sounds terrifying (I certainly thought so at the beginning), it is actually a great learning opportunity. Most professors in my classes thankfully do not practise “cold-calling”, that is, calling on a student at random. Rather, the majority use a call schedule, meaning they call on people at regular intervals. For the student, this means that they can prepare in advance and will know what case they will be quizzed on. Preparing to be called on means students really learn to think about cases in great detail and explore all facets of a problem in order to try and predict some of the questions they may face.

However, not all professors use the Socratic method, but prefer more collaborative teaching styles, inviting all students to participate in class by volunteering answers.

Below: ‘The Old Well’, a UNC Landmark


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