Solving the Socratic method

February 20, 2013

law school graduatesTwo simple words to survive being called on in law school classes.

Your professor looks down at the seating chart, glances at the class, and calls on a student. Someone squirms on the hot seat and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief.

In the Socratic Method, professors probe a student’s understanding by asking questions about the law and the facts. In a car crash, what cause of action did A have against B? What was the weather like? How did the law require A and B to drive?

A student’s answers are attacked, clarified, and attacked again. So, how do you deal with getting grilled in-class? I learned how during study abroad. A Spanish lawyer gave me a hypothetical: a fictional client had a shady proposal. Would I sign off?

“Yes,” I said confidently. “In America, we say the customer’s always right.” The lawyer shook his head. “‘Yes’ is never the answer. Becoming the client’s rubber-stamp may commit you to the impossible or the unethical.”

“Just say ‘no?’” I replied. He shook his head again. “‘No’ isn’t right either. The client will do whatever it wants, and may resent you saying otherwise. You might lose the business.”

I thought for a while more, remembering the fashionable answer people give in law school. “Say maybe?’” The lawyer wrung his hands. “‘Maybe’ is worst of all: it just advertises your indecision.”

“If it’s not ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘maybe,’ what is it?” I asked, exasperated. The lawyer smiled. “The right answer is ‘yes, if.’ Give the client what it wants, but with conditions! Explain what needs to happen.”

This is great advice because “maybe,” “yes,” and “no” are too easy to manipulate. “Maybe” is too vague and can get stretched in all directions. “Yes” and “no” draw a long, straight line. Professors will ask questions to show that line is more crooked than you think. For every rule, there are exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions.

So, how to deal? “Yes” gives a straight answer. “If” only draws part of the line. Those two simple words are specific and narrow. Use them to survive 1L classes, argue to appellate judges, and help your clients.