A Project by HLS Students for Inclusion!


A. Johnson, JD '16

"Law schools convey their factual message to each student about his or her place in the ranking of students along with the implicit corollary that place is individually earned, and therefore deserved. The system tells you that you learned as much as you were capable of learning, and that if you feel incompetent, or that you could have become better at what you do, it is your own fault. Opposition is sour grapes. Students internalize this message about themselves and about the world, and so prepare themselves for all the hierarchies to follow." – HLS Professor, Duncan Kennedy[1]

“The issue, then, is not individual capacity to learn but that all individuals learn differently and some learn even better when their peers are their teachers. In the course of our study, we discovered that we cannot use a single set of criteria or a single pedagogical style to measure teach a complex set of skills. We learned, in other words, the limitations of one-size-fits-all thinking.” – HLS Professor, Lani Guinier[2]


If you feel uncomfortable with the use of the “Socratic method” in the classroom, you are not alone.  Aside from the fact that the use of the “Socratic method” does not accurately represent its practice in Plato’s dialogues, the method has no methodologically proven effectiveness in terms of learning outcomes.[3]  There is no justification for its use, only excuses.  One excuse is tradition.  This tradition comes from a history of exclusionary practices in which white men did not think white women and people of color were intelligent enough to be lawyers.  (Your professors will not mention it).  Although there is no scientifically verified data to support its use, there are plenty of studies and first-hand accounts that suggest the practice does more harm than good and should be discontinued.  (They don’t mention that part either).  As it happens, this tradition, born in an era of exclusion, disproportionately negatively impacts women and racial minorities, excluding them from an equal opportunity to learn. This has been studied, said and written about to death; not many seem to care.  Apparently students are supposed to just suck it up.  But students who are shelling out thousands of dollars in student debt have a right to learn in an environment suitable to them actually learning.  Let’s be clear about this: The question is not whether this particular individual or that specific group can live up to the standards of what it means to be a lawyer.  The Bar exam does not test whether you are good at the Socratic method.  The question is whether students learn better in an environment with or without it.  The answer to that seems clear if we consider the experiences of women and racial minorities in law school.

 Another excuse offered is “academic freedom.”  The law professor does not want to be told what to do.  He’s a lawyer – he knows what he’s talking about.  Never mind the fact that he never actually practiced law for more than a year or two, decades ago.  Law professors know how to teach a concept.  Never mind the fact that law professors generally lack the formal educational training and teaching experience obtained by doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities.  Because of their lack of prior training and experience, law professors use the Socratic method as a crutch.  Fear is an easy way to take control of the classroom.

In fact, the best argument that I have heard in support of the Socratic method is that it makes students do the reading for fear of being called on.  Several white male students have raised this to me.  One wonders how these students made it through their undergraduate programs.  Regardless, this argument avoids the central question raised above.  What good is the reading if you can’t even concentrate in class because of the anxiety produced by the method?  What good is it if you disassociate from your body to get through the classroom experience?  Instead of focusing on the lesson, some students focus on an outline from a past year, hoping that the professor asks the same questions that he did in the previous year.  This sadomasochistic ritual for learning has no basis for depriving everyone else an education, even if some white men enjoy it.


Suggested Reading:

Lani Guinier, Becoming Gentlemen (1997).

Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education And The Reproduction Of Hierarchy: A Polemic Against The System, 44 (2004).

VernĀ Myers & Associates, Harvard Black Law Student Association Race In the Classroom Project Report To Law School Faculty (2002), https://hls.harvard.edu/content/uploads/2016/03/VMConsultingReport-to-Harvard-Faculty-re-Race-in-Classroom-Project-with-Recommendations.pdf.


Angel Everett, Conquering Cold Calls, The Harvard Law Record (April 30, 2016), http://hlrecord.org/2016/04/conquering-cold-calls/.



[1] See Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education And The Reproduction Of Hierarchy: A Polemic Against The System, 44 (2004).
[2] See Guinier supra note 4 at 4.
[3] Id.