Studying Law Without the Socratic Method

One of the things I noticed during my semester as an exchange student at the University of Copenhagen is how much legal education in Europe differs from the approach taken by law schools in the United States. The most drastic difference is, without a doubt, the way in which classes are conducted. In U.S. law schools, most professors use the Socratic method and the call system that law students have come to fear. In contrast, in many continental European law schools, courses are taught simply through lectures. On rare occasions a student will interject with a comment or a question, and on other rare occasions a professor will ask for voluntary input from the class, but for the most part, the professor is the only one who speaks. I have sometimes wondered whether a non-Socratic method of teaching adequately prepares students to be effective lawyers. American law students are forced to take a position on the law, make arguments for it, and apply it to the facts. By being subjected to the Socratic method, we are forced to think on our feet and be prepared for any questions that may be thrown at us by a judge, a client, or a fellow attorney. Arguing a position is one of the most important lawyering skills in both litigation and transactional practices. Therefore, teaching these skills would seem to be a valuable part of legal education anywhere in the world.

Given this apparent superiority of Socratic legal education, I have often wondered whether European law students feel they are at somewhat of a disadvantage. After all, they are not being challenged in class on a daily basis to make arguments and defend positions. I was surprised to learn that many European law students do not believe they are left behind in this respect. Many European students I have met say that classes are meant simply to teach about the law. If students wish to develop their litigation skills, they take a litigation class or join a moot court team, but there is generally no cross-over between developing one’s ability to argue and learning about the law. That is, up until the final exam. Interestingly, many law courses here in Copenhagen administer an oral final, where the professor challenges each student’s ability to argue about the law. Effectively, such an exam tests the students’ skills in taking a position on an issue and defending it. The way European law students view it is that they spend the semester learning about the law, and they then argue the law in the exams. Generally, they seem to feel this provides enough practice of argumentative skills.

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Why Study Law Abroad?

I have had the pleasure of attending law school abroad at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey, and I am currently studying at the University of Copenhagen for one semester.  Other American law students have occasionally asked me about the benefits of studying law abroad.  Some may wonder whether I will be adequately prepared to practice in the United States, given my focus on foreign law.

My fellow law students and I will enter a legal world that is more globalized than ever before.  American clients are increasingly becoming subject to jurisdictions beyond United States borders, as corporations are diversifying their business throughout the world in response to the world-wide economic turmoil in recent years.  Now, it would not be uncommon for a business to be incorporated in Delaware, and have affiliated companies in Brazil and France.  This same company may well hold bank accounts in Switzerland, have assets in South Africa, invest in Saudi Arabia, and conduct business transactions in Japan.  As a result, lawyers may be asked to provide advice on how a French subsidiary of an American parent company would be taxed and whether any international tax conventions apply; what happens if an American financial institution enters into a contract with a Saudi lender and the contract fails to meet the strict requirements of Islamic finance law; or what if an American car dealer enters into a sales contract with a German car manufacturer and the contract fails to meet EU sales directives?  Questions such as these are becoming more and more relevant and American attorneys need to be able to provide answers to clients who wish to do business abroad. 

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