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May 16, 2011 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Laying Down The Law – Surviving Socrates

The hardest I’ve ever studied at University was for my first year law exams. I swotted and memorised, wrote screeds of notes, peered into dusty tomes and bounced ideas of my friends. Those two crucial courses, case and statute law, really tested my studious limits.

Thankfully, the mental exertion paid off, and I was lucky enough to further discover the mysteries of law school. But the entire experience was a fairly traumatic one.

In fact, it’s one of the most stressful things you can at university. Medical students at Otago grumble and groan about late nights and sleepless study sessions – but at least they get to try morphine (seriously, a friend of mine spaced out during her residency). And Architecture Students have legitimate complaints about their demanding workload.

But Law school stress is more readily known about, and more obvious. In fact, it’s a subject that has attracted a considerable amount of academic comment. For example, a study published in the Willamette Law Review found that within months of entering law school, some students had begun to display symptoms of extreme stress, such as sleep deprivation, self-harm, depression, anxiety, obsessive self-doubt, and feelings about losses of personal and emotional control. It must be noted that the study was primarily concerned with overseas law schools – but the style of legal education practiced there does not markedly differ from our own. And that’s worrying.

Let’s be clear, this column is not a bitch fest about how hard law students have to work, or how environmentally unfriendly the average reading list is. We did, after all, sign up for this. Instead it’s a discussion about why law is so stressful. There is a serious question that law students should be asking: what is about legal education that causes so many aspiring lawyers to work hard and stress harder?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the way law is taught. Rumours abound about the humiliation and suffering wrought by lecturers on students using the Socratic Method. In reality the technique is more awkward than it is agonising. I’m generally a supporter of the Socratic Method, but it’s by a view formed more out of custom than by any serious reflection on how appropriate the approach is for the teaching of complicated ideas. Communication is vital to legal learning, but the best classes I’ve ever taken were the ones where debate and discussion was spontaneous, not forced. While the method is sure to make some students do their readings and offer opinions, it’s also been known to make people not turn up to class, or even hide under their desks. It’s an approach that undoubtedly contributes to student’s stress and is anecdotally one of the largest determinants of anxiety in many of the academic articles that comment on this issue.

That by itself is a good enough reason to inquire as to whether or not the Socratic Method is a good approach to take to the teaching of law school subjects. Graduating law school with an LLB and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t going to make employment interviews any easier. Furthermore, continued cohorts of legal professionals who have been forced to run the stress inducing gauntlet of law school will not be particularly useful in modernising the industry or pushing it forward in creative, innovative directions.

Maybe it’s time for law faculties around the country to ponder this issue themselves. The Socratic Method is not set in stone. In fact some famous Law Schools shy away from it. Other approaches, such as the Gutenberg Method, offer alternatives that are deserving of consideration. But as well as the question of form, the broader issue of how law school institutionally deals with (or inadvertently promotes) stressful learning experiences is a topic worthy of more investigation by those who provide it to us.

It should not be forgotten that Law is a trade. It’s a professional disciple. Lawyers in practice need to rely as much on the strength of their relationships as they do on the strength of their knowledge. Perhaps it’s time for legal education to be more aware of that fact.


About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

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