Chapter 08: The Socratic Method Part 2 – How to Overcome Your Fear

In my previous post, we discussed what the Socratic method is, why it’s used, and what makes it so scary. Unfortunately, just talking about WHY it’s so scary does not help you overcome your fears. So, let’s talk about ways that you can overcome this fear of the Socratic method and actually use it to benefit your law school experience.  

Before we get into the specific things you can do to get better at the Socratic Method, it’s important to address “wrong answers” in law school.  As we discussed in the previous post, part of this fear of the Socratic Method comes from the fear and embarrassment of being “wrong”. However, there really isn’t a “wrong answer” when you are engaging in the Socratic Method. Often, the professor is not expecting a specific response, but wants to see what your analysis would be to the questions they pose based on different factual scenarios. Even when you answer the question differently than the professor expected, you have engaged in the material. You are thinking critically. THAT is what the professor ultimately wants from the students. The only way you can really be wrong in class is if you are not prepared to answer the question because you did not do the reading. So if you are prepared, you will be fine! 

This brings be to my first suggestion: Prepare. Do the reading and prepare your case briefs before class. This will help you summarize the important points and be ready to talk about them in class if the professor calls on you. While underpreparing is something to avoid, you also want to avoid overpreparing. Yes, it’s great to know every word of all 7 of the cases you read last night in Torts, but at what cost? Many students take way too much time to rewrite the entire case into their case brief1Remember, it’s called a “brief” for a reason. or highlight every single word in the book, but then have no time to take a break, sleep, or even do work for their next class. You must have your limits and remember that it is impossible to know or be prepared to answer every single question in your class. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, some of those questions may not have an answer that can be found in your book or 27 pages of notes. Some answers will come from thinking critically about the basic rule that comes out of each case that you read. As you’re reading, you can even think about questions that you would ask if you were a professor and pretend to answer them as a student.2Super fun! This will also help you prepare for answering questions in class and, if you’re lucky, some of them may be be the same questions your professor asks in class.  

Second, you need to think of the Socratic method as a conversation and nothing more. It is a conversation between you and your professor that is meant to help you learn. They want to see you think outside your notes and the text in the book. So go ahead and make mistakes.3We all do. We are all humans after all. Go ahead and take a chance at analyzing a new set of facts. If you sound silly, so what?! Your answers to the professor’s questions are not going to factor into your grade or hurt you on the final exam. These questions and discussions are going to help PREPARE you for the final exam. So, get the practice now with the professor in class while you can. 

Finally, if all of that is not enough to make you feel better, then you can always volunteer to talk. That’s right. My advice for your fear of talking to the professor during a cold call is to talk to the professor. But in this scenario, you have control over the subject matter (to an extent). You can choose to talk about something that you are comfortable discussing, something you really understand.4This is a loose term. No 1L REALLY understands anything in their first few weeks. This will allow you to get your turn at talking done and in a more regulated manner. Does this mean that you professor will not cold call5See, I told you all the cool kids use this term. I am the coolest kid I know. on you in another class? No. But it may and, at the very least, it got that first cold call out of the way and made the process less scary for you.  

Remember that nothing is ever as bad as you convince yourself it is. Follow these tips and go in ready to talk without fear of sounding “silly”6Even if you have to fake that confidence. and you will make Socrates proud. 

Meet the Author
Stephen Iannacone is Director of Academic Success at Cardozo School of Law and a Bar Exam Coach at Vinco. Prior to joining Cardozo School of Law, Stephen was a trial attorney at the law firm of Spiegel & Barbato, LLP. He specialized in civil litigation in all New York venues and argued several appeals in the First Department. He was also an adjunct professor at Pace Law School where he taught classes to third-year students preparing for the Bar Exam as well as classes to second-year students focusing on legal writing and analysis. Read more about Stephen >