UW School of Law > Barer Institute > Current Barer Fellows > Socrates Law School Influence


Socrates' influence on present day law school: my personal reflections.

by Lorraine Ogombe

"I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think." – Socrates

Even before I arrived at University of Washington (UW) law school, I knew it was going to be completely different experience. It began with the advice I received from my colleagues in the Kenyan Judiciary who had undertaken graduate studies in the United States (US) and also from a former professor from UW law school currently serving as a Judge in Kenya. Their advice was the same: US law schools use Socratic Method of teaching.

Socrates was a Greek philosopher. Simply put, Socratic Method of teaching is the use of a series of questions to probe and determine the extent of students' knowledge and beliefs. This method is often used by US Professors who do not feed students with information directly but use Socratic questions to elicit ideas and answers from the students.

Since I arrived at UW law school I have encountered the Socratic Method first hand. One of my Professors from Autumn quarter had perfected the art of Socratic questioning. Students had to prepare thoroughly for class by reading the assigned materials. In a typical class, the professor would randomly call on a student and put him/her to task to brief a case. Most classes then proceeded as discussions between the Professor and students. The student briefing a case would be expected to go beyond merely stating the facts of the case. He/she had to understand the issues, majority opinion, concurrence, dissent and policy behind that opinion. The Professor would often play the Devil's Advocate by challenging any assumptions the student had, and would seek clarification and evidence or basis for any argument fronted. A different Professor during Winter Quarter, took it a step further. He would call individual students to the front of the class, and ask him/her to brief the case without referring to any notes. It was horrendous if you were not adequately prepared. Fortunately, most Professors allowed you to “Pass” if you were not prepared. Although this was generally discouraged, since class participation accounted for some percentage of the final grade.

In the course of my studies, I have been on the receiving end of Socratic questioning. It reminded me of examination in chief and cross examination of witnesses which occurs during court trials. As a magistrate serving in the Kenyan Judiciary, I have presided over several cases. In the court room context, I am the neutral arbiter but in law school, I switched hats and took on the seat of a witness answering Socratic questions by Professors and sometimes from fellow students. This is definitely an effective and interesting approach to legal education.

In addition to the regular classes, the Law School offers excellent training through tutorials and clinical programs. The tutorials offer more specialized training for a small group of students while the clinical programs present students with opportunities to deal with real cases, problems and transactions, for academic credit, under supervision of a Professor. In a tutorial I undertook during the course of my studies, I was part of a small class of six students where it was easier to have one on one interaction with the Professor.

Equally important, as a Barer fellow my experiences outside the classroom have also been illuminating. The fellowship strives to create linkages through activities with fellows from other programs and scholarships such as the Gates Foundation and Landesa. We have met extraordinary fellows from around the globe, all committed to development work and/or public service. Also, the Barer fellowship creates professional linkages. In my case, I have had occasion to have one on one meetings with a current sitting US District Court Judge and accomplished attorneys from the largest law office in Seattle. These professionals have generously created time in their busy schedules and shared their experience and insights on the US legal system.

All in all, it has been an exciting learning experience. I have learnt specialized substantive law and policy under the Socratic Method, and through the other numerous opportunities created by UW Law School and the Barer fellowship.

Last updated 3/10/2014