The Classroom Experience

It’s 9:00 a.m., and the first sip of morning coffee kicks in. As the professor utters his or her first words, and you move to the page within the casebook, you typically have one of two feelings. Either there is a sense of confidence because (ideally) you have done the readings, or a sense of dread because the possibility of being called upon looms large while you think about exactly how you will answer a question without having done the readings. Some students have a strategy of asking questions or even trying to participate more to try to avoid questions from the professor. I have, however, seen this strategy backfire, which can be rather hilarious to watch.

Many classrooms might look the same, but the dynamics of discussion can vary widely.

What I have described is a form of the Socratic method—a relic from the days of the classic law school movie The Paper Chase that still exists in the American law school environment. The “being called upon” process can be executed in multiple ways. Some professors designate in advance students who will field all questions for a particular class. This is by far the best method, as students can prepare adequately knowing they will be responsible for a certain chunk of the readings. Some professors also have a panel of people, often arranged by last name, who are on call for recurring classes throughout the semester. One knows that they could potentially be on call, but there is some uncertainty among people whose last names begin with letters from the same section of the alphabet. It often becomes a way, however, to stay prepared in terms of doing class readings. The worst form is the absolute cold call (rare at NYU Law because most faculty are too nice), in which professors call names off a seating chart at random. This means you must be on your toes constantly and think on your feet in case you are questioned. Some students will admit they aren’t prepared, and the baton passes to the next victim.

Thus, depending on which form of the Socratic method is used, you have to adjust your preparation strategy for class. For those classes where you have a better idea of when the on call is, you can more easily concentrate your efforts on those specific days. Professors also pause to ask questions, irrespective of which kind of questioning method they typically follow. These are moments when the professor asks about your informal opinion or even any lingering issue you may have. Make sure to capitalize on these golden opportunities to get yourself noticed. Such participation can help bump you up a grade as well if you are on the margin between grades, though this is at the discretion of the faculty (and, if a factor, often mentioned in the syllabus beforehand). Even if you don’t have a question, you can comment on something discussed within the hour. Too often students remain quiet out of respect (or boredom!), and you can see the frustration on the professors’ faces. They may look superhuman, but they have feelings, too.

The number of people in the classroom can also affect the classroom experience. Not every law school classroom has a lot of students. Some seminar courses (like mine, on products liability) have as few as eight people. This means you are very visible in the class and should adjust your preparation strategy accordingly. A class with a mix of JDs and LLMs will often operate slightly differently from LLM-only classes, as the latter tend to draw frequent comparisons between foreign legal systems and the American one.

Performing well in a law school classroom depends on many different variables, and each day’s classroom experience could be very different from any other.