The Socratic Method, The Case Method and How They Differ

“Socratic Method” are two words that annually provoke anxiety among thousands of entering law students.  So, I thought I’d take a moment to properly define what that is and how it differs from the Case Method.

All Teaching Methods Are Not Created Equally

People incorrectly interchange the terms “Socratic Method” and “Case Method”  — so let’s be precise as to what each are.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method derives its name from Socrates (470-399 B.C.) who, as you may recall from Philosophy 101 in college, walked the streets of ancient Athens questioning citizens about democratic principles, the obligations of citizenship, public morality, and the role of government. He pretended not to know the correct answers, and instead sought to elicit the truth from the subjects of his interrogation.

For law students, what you need to know about the Socratic Method is how it is employed by some (but certainly not all) law professors.  Law professors loathe using straight lecture as a way to teach the law because all the doctrine (a.k.a. black-letter law) you learn is fact-dependent.  Facts that may give rise to liability in one scenario may result in no liability if the circumstances are tweaked in just the slightest way. So, some professors use the Socratic Method as a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between teacher and student; it is based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking in order to help students draw their own conclusions about the legal rules and their underlying theories, presumptions, and utilities.

The Case Method

By contrast, the Case Method refers to a pedagogy (rather than a teaching style) introduced by Christopher Columbus Langdell (yeah, his parents had a sense of humor) who served as Dean of Harvard Law School in the late 1800’s.  Langdell organized the first casebook — a compilation of actual judicial opinions — and revolutionized how law is taught.

You see, despite how some conservatives despise “activist judges” who “create law,” under the Anglo-American common law system we inherited from Great Britain, that’s the exact role of judges: TO CREATE LAW that arises from new or unforeseen factual circumstances. Using the Case Method, law students are expected to read hand-picked judicial opinions (cases) that gave rise to legal rules and dissect them by engaging in an exercise in retrospective analysis that explores why the court crafted the legal rule as it did.

So, while most law professors use the Case Method as a way to introduce legal rules, the Socratic Method refers to the incessant questioning that only some professors use to prod and test the rules they cover.

Interested in learning more about how top law professors describe what they do in a law school classroom, WATCH THIS VIDEO and/or join our upcoming free webinar: “How Law School Differs From College.

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