Law school is competitive, yes, but is the system really anti-women? I’ve been meaning to respond to my dear friend Akhila’s observations about the Socratic method:
“In law school, raising your hand is a competition. Hands shoot up every second, thoughts are formulated rapidly with no room for deep thinking, and the spotlight is on you as eighty of your classmates train their eyes on you — often to raise their hand and proffer a counterpoint in the next minute. Professors call you out (the “socratic method”) and can question you about the minutiae of each case.
This can be a hostile environment, especially for those of us who prefer to think in writing than in speech.”
This Harvard survey (circa 2004) accurately describes a pattern of behavior in law schools everywhere: female students are less likely to speak out in class than their male colleagues. In fact, much has been written on the evils of the Socratic method. It is widely criticized for silencing female voices (since women supposedly fear rejection and humiliation more than male students?) Some even blame the Socratic method for inducing the high anxiety levels characteristic of law students (and the lawyers they later become). This rigorous, terrifying right of passage strikes fear into the hearts of even non-lawyers. And supposedly it is among the reasons why fewer women make partner (whether by choice or otherwise).
But, pardon me the informal digression but… seriously? I beg to disagree.
Of course I, and Akhila, and all the brilliant women in the world should do as Sheryl Sandburg tells us and “lean in,” speak up, speak out, and let our voices be heard. But I don’t think the Socratic method is why we are silent. Nor is our silence in the classroom a reflection of our submissiveness. In this system, academic success largely depends on a student’s performance on one (written) exam at the end of the semester. Whether she speaks up in class or not has absolutely no bearing on her grades. In a system that places great value on first year grades, the hysteria surrounding the Socratic method is largely overrated. I understand – I experienced the Socratic moments, where the questions were clearly designed to humiliate me (i.e. the professor publicly disparaged me for using a used textbook, typing my notes, and not understanding college football terminology.) But in my experience, there was little to no correlation between who spoke up in class and who achieved the best grades or received the most prestigious internships.
I don’t think the first year curriculum terrorizes female future attorneys into submission and to assume otherwise discredits our ambition. And I’d prefer that my fears and shortcomings be my own instead of having them attributed to all women – insecurity is NOT a “classic female thing.” We face so many obstacles, both personal and systemic, in order to succeed in this field. But is the Socratic method really one of them? Why not use our voices strategically rather than superfluously? Isn’t the efficient and effective use of language the craft we hone and practice?