Own the Socratic method

By Alison Monahan

If you have spent even one hour in a law school class, you are familiar with the Socratic method. Spend one day in law school and you have no doubt fallen prey to the method and all of its painful benefits.

In reality, the Socratic method is particularly effective in the legal context because it holds law students, responsible for an insane amount of information, accountable for their pre-class preparation.

You can survive the method and come out stronger because of it. The key to success is taking control of the method, understanding it, and doing the work necessary to successfully navigate the Socratic gauntlet in your law school classes.


Do the Work


It would be the truly gifted law student who could face the probing eye of a law professor, while standing before his or her classmates, and survive the Socratic method totally unprepared for the experience. Law school requires work and the key to success when called on in class is preparation.

Do the readings, brief your cases, and know the material (to the extent possible) and getting called on will be much less daunting. If you fail to prepare, you will certainly not be able to fake it, and are more likely to look like a deer in the headlights.

Avoid that special brand of humiliation and blow to the ego by doing the work you are expected to do, when you are expected to do it. Will you know the minutia and subtleties that the professor is looking for? Probably not; however, you will be able to work your way to the right answer if you are prepared.


Try to Relax


There is nothing more likely to torpedo your chance at bat than nerves and anxiety. In order to tackle the Socratic method in class, just relax. Right now, you are thinking, “no kidding! Thank you, Mr. Obvious!” It’s not as difficult as it might seem and there are ways to calm down and hit a homerun.

Before class, spend some time focusing on, and thinking about, speaking in front of people while preparing to do so. Visualization can help you build a lot of confidence by facing the fear before it arrives. This can take the edge off of your anxiety.

Furthermore, another key to relaxation is slowing your breathing and relaxing your body. Practicing these techniques while you are preparing for class, once you arrive in class, and in the moments before you begin to contribute in class.

Your performance will be much better, and you will ooze confidence in class.


Be Confident!


You cannot go into class with the attitude that you are going to look dumb or fail to get the answers right. This is a recipe for disaster; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Change your views and beliefs about your ability to effectively communicate what you know (and what you don’t know).

Know that you can do this. Know that you have at least as much mastery as virtually everyone else in the class (except the gunner, maybe) and that no one will remember that you faltered or froze when trying to find the nuances of some case from 1860 about an angry bull. Additionally, everyone sitting in that class is experiencing the same doubts and anxiety. They are all sitting in their seats trying to think themselves smaller so as to avoid the cold call.

You must engage in cognitive reframing to target your negative self-image and reduce your fear. Be your best advocate, be supportive, and tell yourself that you can do it. Begin to learn that speaking up in class is a non-threatening activity and you can do it with confidence. Be confident and know that you can do this as well as anyone else in your class, maybe even better.


Be the Captain of Your Ship and Defeat the Anxiety


Take control of your class participation. Look for opportunities to volunteer to participate and think of your participation as a way to share your valuable insights, perspectives, and opinions with your classmates. Think of class participation as a way of giving something of value to your class.

Let go of your negative preconceptions about how you look or sound and soon, you will allow yourself to give the class your best. The more you practice speaking in class, the more comfortable and confident you will become. Steal opportunities to contribute whenever you are feeling confident about your knowledge or think that your perspective is unique. The more that you speak up, the easier it will get.

Practice speaking up often and the anxiety demons will be vanquished. The point is, you take control of your class participation whenever you can. This gives you power and should result in greater confidence and comfort when you are cold called.


There is Cause for Hope


The Socratic method, mastering volumes of material, and the competitiveness of law school are all reasonable sources of fear and anxiety, but you should not be a victim. Take control. Be proactive. Be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. You can do this just like so many law students that have come before you.


Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School®, which is a leading resource for women (and some men) embarking on a legal career. Alison is also a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox® and Bar Exam Toolbox® which provide free resources, tutoring and a variety of courses and tools to help law students and bar exam takers succeed with less stress and anxiety.