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Kellen Wittkop is a 2L at HLS. Originally from Broomfield, Colorado, she received her BA in Economics and English from Colorado State University. She spent last summer in Washington, DC at the US Department of Justice, and will be going home to Denver next summer for an internship at Faegre Baker Daniels. When she’s not reading for class or spending time with friends, she enjoys snapping some photos outside and exploring Boston.

From Cold Calls to Volunteers, and Everything In Between

Before starting at Harvard Law, I heard rumors about the “Socratic Method”: your professor calling you out in front of your peers, Paper Chase-style. From my perspective, HLS did not disappoint in that respect – some classroom experiences are truly more intense than others, but after your second or third time being cold called, it just becomes second nature.

Professors vary widely in how they conduct a classroom – from those who cold call at least 10 students each session, to those who use the “panel” system of only having a few people on-call each day, to those who take volunteers or simply lecture. But amidst all of the diversity in classroom pedagogy, there are few consistencies that I think paint a pretty encompassing picture:

You will be cold called at some point, and you will survive: It’s inevitable. Each student will be called on at some point in the first few weeks of the semester in some way or another. Sure, the first few times may be awkward or you may stumble a bit, but everyone soon becomes accustomed to the flow of the class and everything falls into place. As long as you are prepared for class (and sometimes even if you aren’t) you will make it through the string of questions just fine.

As embarrassing as you think it might be, your classmates do not actually judge you for a poor response: At first, the thought of faltering in front of my peers was probably my biggest concern in the classroom. No one wants to look unprepared or say something incorrect. At the end of the day, it is not the biggest deal if you have an off moment. Most classrooms support a good discussion among the students and professor, and if you have to “skip” or say you “don’t know,” none of your peers will remember that tomorrow.

More intense classroom environments can actually make the class more enjoyable: I’ve found that while more intense classroom settings require more work on the front end, I’m usually more engaged – mostly because I have to be in order to keep up. There is more incentive and motivation to do the reading and engage with it so that you are prepared for that line of questioning you know will eventually happen.

“Socratic method” does not always equal cold calling: One of the more surprising aspects of the law school classroom setting for some students is that the term “Socratic method” is often used loosely to describe a wide range of environments. Some professors actually employ this method well, answering student responses with questions to help us arrive at a certain point. But some professors really just “cold call,” asking what this fact was or why that happened. Often, cold calling is paired with a tendency to take volunteers, and in those settings you will be thankful for the people who raise their hands without probing. So go into each class with an open-mind about what the Socratic method will actually look like in practice for each professor.

No matter the teaching style, law school classrooms are engaging and thought-provoking: It may sound obvious or cliché, but it’s really true. Most classes are not just a recitation of facts and holdings and case names – the class is meant to discuss a larger theory or abstract application of the law. And for the most part, no matter what the classroom environment plays out to be, there will be more than a few times you nod your head in agreement with an insightful comment made by your peers or professor.