The Socratic Method and "Thinking Like a Lawyer" Revisited:

In his latest post, Orin argues that the Socratic method can teach students to "think like a lawyer" in ways different from those I discussed in my post on the subject. He suggests that:

I think Ilya and I have a very different sense of what it means to "think like a lawyer." In my view, thinking like a lawyer has little to do with thinking on your feet, answering questions orally, or advocacy skills. Nor does the Socratic Method teach these skills very well.

Rather, "thinking like a lawyer" means having a brain that focuses on what is legally relevant and that puts aside what is not. Legal thinking is a practical art that relies on a set of principles and relationships, and a person thinks like a lawyer when they master that practical art.

Orin is absolutely right that lawyers need to be able to identify what is "legally relevant" in a reading, and that the Socratic method can sometimes help teach that skill. At the same time, I see little that is unique to law about this ability. In studying almost any field that involves reading written material, students have to be able to separate out what is relevant to their studies from that which is not. I focused on advocacy skills in my previous post because those are more clearly specific to law and because many advocates of SM (though not, apparently, Orin) claim that it helps teach them.

That said, Orin is right that effective use of SM can help students identify legally relevant material in their readings. The question is whether it can achieve this goal better than alternative teaching methods, while also achieving the objective of getting them to understand the substantive field of law the class is supposed to be covering. In my view, most of the time other teaching methods will be more effective in achieving both objectives because less class time is wasted on answers by students who may be poorly prepared and because of the problems caused by "hiding the ball." Professors in other fields that require students to identify what is relevant in complex written material seem to do just fine without resorting to SM. The same goes for law professors in virtually every country other than the United States. For me, as for Brian Leiter, it is telling that teachers in these other fields and countries feel no need to resort to SM, and most clearly believe that the skill of separating out relevant from irrelevant can be better taught in other ways.

I don't think that SM is always and inevitably worse than alternative teaching methods. As I suggested here, full-blown SM may be the best method for a few professors, and moderate SM can often be useful as a supplement to other approaches. Nonetheless, I don't believe that SM is an especially good way of learning how to separate out the relevant from the irrelevant.