Saturday, September 30, 2023
Christopher Columbus Langdell got it right – for the most part. What Langdell got right is the Socratic Method – and the accompanying cold calling – that is essential to training law students to be outstanding lawyers. Below is a brief explanation of why Langdell’s method is a vital component of legal education, along with a few suggestions to maximize the competency and marketability of law school graduates.
I. Why Langdell was right.
A. The Socratic Method works because it improves critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking (and intelligence generally) is among the most important skills needed to be an excellent lawyer. For example, great lawyers know how to read and distinguish cases, synthesize complex precedents, reason by analogy, and make persuasive arguments. To do so, you must know how to think critically, identify the weaknesses (and strengths) in arguments, distinguish relevant from irrelevant facts (and law), use the law and facts to craft a compelling narrative, and make policy arguments that support a judgment in your favor.
Put differently, intelligence matters. The Socratic method makes you a smarter and more analytical thinker.
B. Cold Calling is beneficial.
Cold calling is essential to an effective legal education. Indeed, cold calling teaches students the value of preparation. It teaches students to think on their feet. It forces students to perform in front of a large audience. And it teaches students the importance of, among other things, being attentive to detail, responding to unexpected questions in a persuasive manner, and examining the flaws in their previously held beliefs.
C. Making students uncomfortable (and nervous) is a good thing.
Law students must learn how to deal with adversity, and they must learn how to respond effectively to adversity. They need to understand that they will fail often in life, and that failure is an opportunity to gain experience and persevere through challenges in life and in the law. They must be taught that your choices and decisions, not your circumstances, determine your destiny.
The Socratic Method – and cold calling – accomplishes these objectives. Sure, students may experience anxiety. They may dread being called upon in class. They may embarrass themselves. They may experience self-doubt. So what? Experiencing – overcoming – these challenges help a person to grow, develop thick skin, and understand the value of preparation, perseverance, assertiveness, and confidence. In other words, learning how to cope with negative emotions, and developing a strong mindset where you take responsibility for your choices, is essential to succeeding in the law and in life.
II. Additional Suggestions
As stated above, the Socratic method is a critical component of a rigorous and beneficial legal education. But other components matter too.
A. Legal Writing and Communication
The ability to write and communicate persuasively is essential to being an excellent attorney and advocate. For this reason, law schools should devote more time to their legal writing curriculum and require students to take a writing course in every semester of law school. In so doing, law schools should require students to draft the most common litigation and transactional documents and train students in rewriting and editing. After all, if law graduates cannot write persuasively, they will not practice law effectively.
B. The Intangibles
Law schools should emphasize that success in the legal profession and in life is due in significant part to intangible factors that transcend raw intelligence, an LSAT score, or law review membership. These factors include, but are not limited to, humility, a strong work ethic, maturity, excellent judgment, discipline, consistency in performance, and passion. It also includes respecting diverse viewpoints, being willing to admit that you are wrong, and accepting responsibility for your mistakes.
Perhaps most importantly, students need to learn how to overcome adversity and respond well to and learn from failure. They need to understand that they will face injustice and unfairness in life. And they need to be told that they are not victims, that they should not embrace victimhood, and that they aren’t “oppressed.” Rather, law students need to understand and embrace the fact that their choices, not their circumstances, determine whether they will be successful.
C. High Standards
Law schools must hold students to high standards. Law professors need to be honest about the demands of the legal profession and the skills that separate mediocre lawyers from outstanding lawyers. Professors do a tremendous disservice to students if they inflate grades, coddle their students, or fail to help students acquire the skills needed to prepare them for the real world. And law professors whose teaching is influenced by political ideology or bias, and who show hostility to viewpoints that differ from their own, should not be professors.
Of course, students’ feelings matter and should never be disregarded. But the real world does not care about your “feelings” or sensitivities. Law firms, lawyers, and clients care about what you can do for them. Can you write a persuasive motion to dismiss, a summary judgment motion, and a trial brief? Can you make a persuasive oral argument? Can you work well under pressure and deal effectively with stress? Are you likable and relatable, or are you a narcissistic jerk? Can you communicate with clients in a simple, honest, and straightforward manner, and maintain positive relationships with them?
Teaching the tangible – and intangible – qualities necessary to succeed as a lawyer means holding students to high standards and being honest with them. After all, they will discover the truth when they enter law practice. Preparing them for those realities reflects the truest form of empathy.