For over a century, law schools have relied on the Socratic Method. Rather than straightforward lectures, students will often read from casebooks and prepare to answer questions from the professor about the cases. The Socratic Method is intended to incentivize preparation, facilitate discussion, and get students to practice legal analysis. The Socratic Method is supplemented with “cold calls” where students will be called on to answer without prior notice.
Cold calls were probably never part of your undergrad experience as a default method of teaching. Being cold called can easily become a source of pressure and anxiety for a law student. Any current or prospective law student should be primed on what cold calls are, how to approach them, and why cold calls should not become a major source of distress.
The Socratic Method
The Socratic Method is a way to have a collaborative discussion between the professor and the student. The philosopher Socrates was once told that he was the wisest man in all of Greece. Socrates disagreed and began an inquisitive journey by simply asking people about their moral and epistemological views. Socrates didn’t claim to be able to tell others what was correct or incorrect; Socrates would simply ask questions to arrive at a well-defended conclusion.
Socrates did not invent the method for law school, but the U.S. legal education system adopted the Socratic Method as a way to engage the students with the material. Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School in the late 1800s, is credited for introducing the Socratic Method. Prior to Langdell’s introduction of the Socratic Method and the case method, law was taught simply by telling the students what the law was.
There are many theories about why the Socratic Method has stuck around for so long. Some say that it places the student in the shoes of a judge doing legal analysis. It has been argued that the Socratic Method is simply fun for law professors. Some say that it is made to be mean to the students. The Socratic Method might help develop public speaking skills, overall composure, and thinking on one’s feet, all valuable assets to litigators. However, real-world legal practice usually includes plenty of time to think, prepare, and craft arguments, even for oral arguments where a judge is questioning the attorney on the spot. For whatever the reason(s) and however effective it might really be, the Socratic Method has been around for a while and probably won’t disappear from law schools any time soon.
How concerned should I be about cold calls?
Not very much. First, cold calls and participation will rarely affect your grades. Most law school courses are graded entirely on a single final exam that is graded blind. How you did on a cold call is not tied to your academic performance. Cold calls also become less frequent beyond your 1L year (the first year of law school). First-year law students tend to stress over cold calls a lot during the first semester but quickly learn to handle them with less anxiety long before the second semester hits.
Preparing for class
However, if you are constantly struggling to answer or find yourself unable to keep up with your classmates’ cold calls, it may be an indication that you are not preparing or understanding well enough. Is this a bad thing? Probably but not necessarily. I have known a few classmates that would read after the class and use the class session as a compass to later read only for the key takeaways. These people would struggle mightily on their cold calls, but they knew what they were signing up for.
On the contrary, some students will go above and beyond in preparing for each class session and will often have most if not all of the potential cold call answers in their notes beforehand. Most people will find themselves somewhere in the middle, and you should do what is comfortable for you as long as you aren’t failing to properly prepare for your law school classes.
The social impact of cold calls
The part most people are worried about is being embarrassed or humiliated during a cold call… the social consequences. The whole class is watching, and you are sparring one-on-one with the professor who knows all of the answers already. How can you win? You can’t! Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know. Don’t think that every word you say out loud must be part of the right answer.
The best way to think about cold calls is that you are simply playing your part as a sounding board for the professor to deliver the course to the entire class. It is possible that a professor asks bad questions making it harder to give good answers. If you came to class prepared and your cold call did not go well because of bad questioning, what reason is there to be embarrassed?
You also can’t “win” at cold calls because there are no points to be earned and no recognitions to be given. Your classmates might compliment you on a good cold call, but rarely will anyone be criticized or laughed at for a bad one. The rest of the class understands what it is like to go through a cold call and can empathize with your struggles.
What about your professor?
Finally, if you are concerned with what the professor will think of you, remember that they have also been law students before and they are not out to get you. Not only does the professor want to see you do well (and definitely not humiliate you), there is no professor alive that attended law school in the 1800s. Your professor has probably been cold called before and frequently sees way worse cold calls than however bad you think you just did.
One more time for emphasis: cold calls do not affect your grades, bar exam, or job prospects! As long as you are familiar with the type of cold call used for a class and have prepared by reading the assignment with the common types of cold call questions in mind, you have nothing to worry about. Believe it or not, cold calls can even be enjoyable, particularly when you feel extra-prepared for the day.
Types of cold calls
1. The “pure” or “classic” cold call: if you have ever read the book or seen the movie called The Paper Chase, you might remember the student on his first day being called on in class. Professor Kingsfield calls on James Hart who did not do the reading and grills him without mercy or remorse. Hart ends up puking after class because of the humiliation that he was put through. In this kind of cold call, there is no system in place other than that the professor can call on whoever he wants at any time. It gives true meaning to “cold” because nobody will know who will be getting called on. If you do not show up to class prepared, you are not only risking embarrassment, but you will also hold back the class discussion
2. Roster cold call: with this method of cold calling, a professor will pick either alphabetically or randomly and work their way through the class roster until everyone has been called on. After the whole roster has been worked through, the cycle begins again. It is possible that the roster cold call is implemented despite appearing to be a pure cold call. If you notice a pattern that indicates roster cycles, you can probably relax for at least a few classes after you have been called (unless you know you were at the end of the roster).
3. Panel cold call: if your professor divides up your class into groups of students (the “panels”), one of the groups will be assigned to a specific day of class. If you are on panel for a particular day, you should be extra prepared because you know that the chances of you being called on is quite high. This of course depends on how many people are on each panel and if the professor cares to make his or her way through the panel without repeating names, but there is little reason to expect a cold call on the days you are not on panel. The panels will usually be assigned in advance so this type of call is only cold to the extent that you may or may not be called on your panel day.
4. Systematically random cold calls: systematic and random might appear to cause an oxymoron, but some professors will want to ensure fairness and go with this option which can manifest in a variety of ways. A list of names might be written or announced at the beginning of class—effectively a spontaneous panel for the day. At Notre Dame Law School, a popular method is an Excel sheet that generates names for each class session and assigns a lower likelihood for students that have already been called. With this method, it is possible for some students to have been called 3 or 4 times before another student has been called for the first time. However, that student who has yet to be called should be expecting a cold call in the coming days barring statistical anomalies. Such a system can be an interesting mix of predictable and random at the same time.
5. Volunteers preferred: some professors do not like to rely on cold calling unless there is a stark lack of participation in the class. While reserving their right to exercise discretion and cold call, some professors will not look to do so if there is already sufficient participation. However, if the class gets dead silent on a question, sit up and try to think the answer on your own because rarely will a professor be okay with nobody offering an answer.
6. Cruel and unusual punishment: I have not seen this in my own law school experience, but I have heard of professors that will usually use the pure cold call and supplement it with even further incentives to be prepared. If a student was not prepared, then the students sitting next to him or her would be called on! If you did not want to burden your classmates, or feared that your classmates might burden you, it became even more of a reason to come to class prepared.
Types of cold call questions
The professor is (most likely) not going to ask you about current events or the 10-day weather forecast. You can prepare with an expectation for a number of common questions during a cold call. After a few weeks of class, patterns and tendencies will start to show for each professor and you can narrow your efforts as you notice them.
The reading materials will usually be cases. You will be reading opinions from judges that go over real facts and judgments. The case brief—a sort of task that has the student outline the main elements of a case—is designed to be a tool to defeat the archetypal cold call. That means that if you know the key facts of the case, issues, rules, holdings, and reasoning, you will be prepared for the cold calls that have you explain away the case. Explaining away the case will usually kick off a discussion on the law and the professor may ask follow-up questions after having gone over the specifics of the case.
Hypotheticals, or “hypos”, are also common questions. Hypos are fictional scenarios that are set up to challenge a student’s ability to use legal analysis. The hypo may track a fact pattern from a case or be designed to have no right or wrong answer. Pay close attention to hypos even if you aren’t on call because oftentimes it gives insight into the style of fact patterns that a professor puts on an exam.
Sharing your thoughts
A professor may simply ask you what your reaction is or what you think about a certain rule or theory. Oftentimes, these open ended questions are simply put out there to facilitate discussion and there is no correct answer. Unless the reading assignment indicates a direction that the answer should flow towards, feel free to share how you really feel about something (politely and precisely). For example, in a Torts class, a professor may ask you how you feel about justifying the holding based on one theory of Tort law, maybe compensation or deterrence. Would you agree that compensation or deterrence justifies the results of the case? Why or why not?
Lastly, anything your professor wants is also on the table. Professors can get quite creative with how they want to design their classroom discussions, so don’t be surprised if you get unconventional questions. Cold calls are meant to facilitate the discussion and move the entire class through the material, so don’t be afraid to take the challenge and answer whatever your professor may throw at you!
This whole article is intended to relieve you of your concerns regarding cold calls. Most students quickly figure it out and feel much more comfortable after just a few weeks, but even prospective law students have nothing to freak out about. Every law student has been through it and come out the other side okay. We hope that you feel more relaxed about the dreaded cold calls in law school.
Joseph Kim is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He's been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.