7 Strategies to Prepare for the Socratic Method During 1L Year

Legend states that when Socrates asked Plato, "What is a man?" Plato responded, "a featherless biped." Plato was applauded for such a simple definition, but not by everyone. In response, eccentric philosopher Diogenes the Cynic strolled into Plato's Academy holding up a plucked chicken and stated, "Behold, I've brought you a man!" Plato then added "...with broad flat nails" to his definition.

This dialectical approach to understanding came to be known as the Socratic Method. While 1L classes typically don't involve plucked chickens, your professors will employ a refined version of this method. Here's what it looks like and how to prepare for it…

What is the Socratic Method?

The Socratic Method, as described by Socrates in Plato's "Theaetetus," is a cooperative argumentative process. It's designed to challenge assertions and stimulate critical thinking, often through a series of probing questions. In law school, this translates into a dynamic classroom environment where legal theories are actively debated.

How Professors Use the Socratic Method

Professors take a pedagogical approach to the Socratic Method, called a Socratic Seminar. Expect more than just lectures; this is an interactive class discussion. You might be asked to summarize cases, defend various positions, or analyze hypothetical scenarios, all to sharpen your legal acumen. Your professor will ask students increasingly challenging questions, often at random (cold-calling).

Expect to be grilled regardless of the accuracy or quality of your response. Your professor may ask you to defend a stance you disagree with or to discuss facts and holdings, or they may even manipulate case facts into a hypothetical case.

A law professor using the Socratic Method to teach a first-year law school class

Why? What are the Benefits?

Remember, the goal of the Socratic Method is not just to test your knowledge but to encourage critical thinking and prepare you to:

  • Remain confident when confronted by tough judges
  • Anticipate counterarguments
  • Analyze a case from various perspectives
  • Engage all students, not just the most vocal
  • Apply a legal rule to different situations
  • Learn to reason by analogy
  • Consider your own arguments critically
  • Understand the effect of the law on people

7 Strategies to Master the Socratic Method

    1. Prepare for Class

    This is by far the most important strategy. Engage deeply with your readings: highlight key points, brief cases, and review them regularly. Commercial summaries and outlines can also serve as a powerful tool to give context and ensure that you understand key course concepts and blackletter law prior to class. Understanding context is crucial for participating in class discussions.

    2. Learn from Peers

    Maybe you have a classmate who manages despite bragging about how they don’t even do the readings. Maybe they’re a genius, or maybe they’re stretching the truth. The reality is that most of your peers are experiencing law school and its challenges similarly to you. Join study groups, observe how others tackle questions in class, and exchange ideas. Speak to students who took that professor’s class in previous years to better understand exam expectations. This collaborative approach can offer fresh perspectives and insights.

    3. Get Comfortable with Public Speaking

    Public speaking makes many of us anxious, but the more you participate, the easier it will become. Think your professor has a grudge against you because they keep cold-calling you? Just look at it as an opportunity for more practice. No one likes getting cold-called, but it’s an important part of the law school experience. If you're feeling nervous, try focusing on the dialogue, analyzing, and forming a response. Concentrate on the content of your responses rather than the act of speaking itself.

    4. Know your Professors

    Your professors are people. You don't need to go out for coffee with them, but try talking to them a bit before and after classes. Engage with them during office hours to clarify challenging concepts and learn about their testing style. Learn what their specialties are. What do they tend to focus on in class? Are there past exams somewhere so you can understand their testing style? All these things will help you hone in on preparing and excelling in your classes.

    5. Be Okay with Uncertainty

    The Socratic Method isn't about regurgitating blackletter law, though knowing the law is an important part of the process. It's about the "what if?" It's okay to be uncertain of yourself when you have to apply different fact patterns in a case; this is how you exercise your critical thinking skills. Defend your viewpoints confidently, even when they're partially speculative.

    6. Stay Engaged

    You don't want to be called on while you're daydreaming about making people refer to you as “esquire”. Active engagement is key. Take detailed notes, listen attentively, and be ready to jump into the discussion—you never know when it will be your turn in the spotlight.

    7. Be Open-Minded

    The Socratic Method involves a lot of improvisation and encourages creative, even playful, thinking. Keep an open mind to new ideas and be ready to challenge your preconceptions. This openness will enrich your learning experience.


The Socratic Method is akin to a dance of the mind. It's not just about memorizing legal principles. It’s about adapting to the rhythm of critical thinking and engaging dialogue. It's an exercise in agility, requiring you to be quick on your feet and creative in your responses, even if it means you have to hold up a plucked chicken to make your point once in a while.

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