By Tonya Krause-Phelan, WMU-Cooley Law School
Reframing the Socratic Method by Jamie R. Abrams
64 JOURNAL OF LEGAL EDUCATION 562 (2015)
Reframing the Socratic Method offers a fresh idea to redesign the Socratic Method from a professor-student exercise into an exercise that fosters diverse participation and develops essential lawyering skills. Professor Abrams acknowledges that the Socratic Method, used by law schools for over a century, has become the quintessential example of question-based learning. But contrary to many modern critics of the Socratic Method, Professor Abrams does not disparage the Socratic Method or call for its elimination. Nor does she endorse it. Instead, she encourages professors to restructure the Socratic Method in three ways to ensure it aligns with current innovations and reform: make it client-focused, research-focused, and skills-sensitization focused.
First, Professor Abrams suggests that the Socratic Method should focus primarily on the client, instead of the case. Traditionally, Socratic dialogue begins by asking the student what happened in the case which causes students to think about the case abstractly. As a result, students do not consider the case from the client’s point of view. Further, it does not permit students to scrutinize the decisions made by the lawyers in the case. With a few simple changes, professors can move the Socratic Method from a rule-based to a client-based task. Instead of asking students to recite the facts of the case, a client-based Socratic approach asks the student to explain what happened to the plaintiff or why the plaintiff sought counsel. These modified questions still highlight the relevant facts of the case, but they allow students to understand the facts from the client’s point of view as well as to consider the attorney-client relationship.
Next, Professor Abrams recommends that instead of using the traditional Socratic Method approach to focus on case outcomes and hypothetical questions, the Socratic questions should be changed so that students use relevant legal authority to represent the client. Instead of asking a student to recite the court’s holding, students should be asked what precedent, the client’s lawyer would have found in preparing the client’s case. These modified questions, propel students to analyze the legal authority relied upon by the court, to understand how the precedent negatively or positively affected the client, and to understand the historical and social underpinnings of the legal precedent. To further insert research-based components into the Socratic dialogue, professors could require students to apply information contained in the case footnotes or to prepare supplemental material to answer research-focused questions. This allows students to develop the ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a client’s case.
Finally, Professor Abrams proposes that professors modify the Socratic dialogue to sensitize students to the broad range of legal skills needed to lawyer effectively. She acknowledges that this type of questioning may not be practical in every case. But when possible, the professor should ask questions that guide students to think about effective lawyering skills. These refined questions could range from what role settlement negotiations play in a client’s case to understanding the relevant ethical rules used to determine who the client is and how to meet the client’s objectives. Professor Abrams illustrates how reframing the Socratic Method in a commonly-taught constitutional law case, Reed v Reed, changes the dynamic of instruction from professor-student to student-propelled focus on the client, legal research, and effective lawyering skills.
Professor Abrams explains that reframing the Socratic Method achieves three benefits. First, it allows for coherence and continuity to legal education. Second, it trains practice ready lawyers because students will be better prepared to tell the clients actual answers to actual questions and they will be sensitized to how intensive legal research truly is. And third, it creates inviting and inclusive classrooms. While detailing specific examples for each type of modification she recommends, Professor Abrams illustrates how easily professors could modify the manner in which they already use the Socratic method to accomplish the current goals of innovation and reform.