University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Political Science


“What are law school classes like?”

Law classes have a pair of distinguishing features. First, when you are a first-year student (also known as a “1L”), you will be taking all of your first-year classes with the same people. The typical law school entering class is divided up into “sections” – you will be placed in a section, and you will take all of your initial classes together. In addition, all of your first-year classes will be large lectures (except for Legal Writing, which is usually offered as a smaller workshop … in which your classmates will be a subset of the same people with whom you are taking those large lecture classes).

The second distinguishing feature, which is hardly universal, is something called the Socratic Method. Professors who employ the Socratic Method teach by announcing that the class will now cover a particular assigned case … and will then randomly call on a student, who is then supposed to recite what happened – the facts, the legal issues presented, the eventual ruling, etc. Invariably, the student will be interrupted by the professor, who will proceed to pose questions that the student is expected to answer.

The Socratic Method is the source of countless horror stories by law students who were unmercifully grilled by professors who seemed to delight in making students squirm, purportedly to train them to “think on their feet,” but more likely out of overt malevolence. Many law students also grouse about unofficial Socratic techniques such as “Hide the Ball” … in which the professor withholds a key fact from their target, but expects the target to anticipate certain arguments anyway.

While these accounts are more than urban legends, it must be pointed out that the Socratic Method has fallen into happy disuse in recent times. Very few professors actually employ it, and those who do often use a kinder, gentler version of it; they will alert a student in advance that they should come to the next class “prepared” to be “on call” for a given case. You may well get through your entire law school career without encountering a single professor who utilizes the Socratic Method. If, however, you do end up with a professor who does utilize it … well, just make sure you are caught up in your reading, at all times.

You should be able to take some smaller classes as a 2L and a 3L, especially “boutique” subjects that you may consider pursuing in your law practice, such as Environmental Law. You may even be able to take a seminar that focuses on theoretical legal questions. But classes like that are not the bread-and-butter of your law school experience; indeed, they are much more the exception than the rule.

Last modified November 15 2010 04:53 PM