A plug for the 'traditional approach' to teaching law
By Professor Andrew Beckerman-Rodau
Suffolk University Law
120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108
Copyright 1994 by Andrew Beckerman-Rodau - All Rights Reserved.
[This essay originally appeared in The Law Teacher (Spring/94)
which is published by the Gonzaga University Institute for Law School Teaching]
The Socratic method, long viewed as the "traditional" teaching methodology in
law school, has diminished in use. The explosion of case law and especially
statutory and administrative regulations has been a catalyst for this change.
Lawyers today must thread their way through a more complicated body of law
than existed as recently as fifty years ago. Today, for example, a simple real
estate transaction can involve environmental and civil rights issues in addition
to traditional property law questions. The Socratic method, an inherently slow
methodology that minimizes course coverage, has fallen prey to the desire to
utilize teaching methodologies that cover as much law as possible.
A fundamental question must be asked before choosing any teaching
methodology: What is the teaching objective? It is important to identify the
skills an attorney needs to practice law effectively. The ability to analyze a
large mass of factual data and focus on the relevant facts and relationships is
essential. An attorney with a firm grasp of the fundamental legal theories and
policies that underlie the basic foundations of law will be equipped to
accomplish this task. Knowledge of statutory and administrative regulatory
schemes is also necessary. The Socratic method fosters development of these
The desire to maximize coverage of law is a misguided objective. It is
impossible to expose law students to more than a fraction of the ever-expanding
mass of law they will encounter as practicing lawyers. Also, many aspects of law
will change between the time students are exposed to them in law school and any
subsequent exposure in the real world.
Furthermore, an emphasis on coverage necessitates conveying large amounts of
law without fully exploring it. This is dictated by the time constraints imposed
by the realities of a typical three-semester-hour class which consists of a mere
45 hours of classroom time (actually it is less, because an academic hour is
usually only 50 minutes). This type of environment encourages, and perhaps
requires, students to memorize much of the material they are exposed to in order
to survive the exam at the end of the course. Such a pedagogical approach is
questionable since learning theory and anecdotal evidence support the belief
that memorized information has a short lifespan.
The Socratic method in its purest form involves teaching students via the
sole use of questions asked by the professor. The professor uses the questions
to guide students through the material and to facilitate their own understanding
of the material. Unfortunately, such a method is simply too slow to effectively
cover sufficient material.
A modified form of Socratic method can effect a balance between exposing
students to significant areas of law and developing lawyering skills. Such a
method entails exposing students to large bodies of law via handouts or e-mail
distribution. Class time can then be directed to developing analytical skills.
The bodies of law can be applied to specific problems and hypotheticals which
draw out the underlying theories and policies that provided the impetus for
enactment of the law. This approach, which requires students to grapple with the
difficulty of making legal arguments to support various outcomes in the problems
and hypotheticals, makes students engage in analysis which must then be
communicated in a persuasive manner. Additionally, it make students examine the
underlying policy of the law at issue as well as policies underlying other areas
of law. This allows the student to understand the law rather then merely
Learning theory supports the belief that knowledge is retained if it is fully
understood in contrast to its merely being memorized. A modified Socratic method
will not maximize students' exposure to law. It will instill a long-term memory
of the law they are exposed to, in addition to developing the necessary
lawyering skills of analysis and communication.
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