Vail Daily column: Socrates and the law

Law school is taught by the Socratic Method.

What, you may ask, is that?

Let me explain.

First of all, the Socratic Method is banned, I am sure, by the Hague Conventions. The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits it. If “W”’s minions employed it at Guantanamo, shame on them; they should be tried for war crimes and convicted. And yet, it persists as common currency in law schools.

For those of you who have escaped this special brand of torture, it goes something like this:

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First of all, Socrates, for whom the method, not surprisingly, is named, lived about a million years ago. OK, OK, he lived from 470-399 B.C., but let’s not quibble over details. It might as well have been a million years ago. He was a Greek philosopher who, despite being considered one of the greatest and most important philosophers who ever lived, left no writings at all. An illiterate, it seems. Most of what we know about his life and work comes from the writings of his disciples, Xenophon (isn’t that a noble gas?) and Plato. He lived during a period of transition in the Greek empire, and after the Peloponnesian War, he was tried, convicted and executed for corrupting the young. That, perhaps, is why his teachings persist.

Socrates engaged in questioning his students in “an unending search for truth.” That’s the party line at least. He sought to get to the foundations of his students’ views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic Method, and it may be Socrates’ most enduring contribution to philosophy.

It was all a feint on his part, I think. My own theory is that Socrates kept asking questions because he didn’t know the answers and was too embarrassed to admit it.

Have you ever read Jerzy Kosinki’s “Being There”? The main character, Chance, ends up as president of the United States because people mistake his stupidity for profundity. I’ve got a feeling that Socrates was something like that.

Nonetheless, what the Socratic Method consists of is, essentially, institutionalized bludgeoning. And, for this, in law school, you pay a king’s ransom in tuition.

Let me give an example of how it goes.

It was my first day in law school. In fact, it was my first class on my first day of law school. In fact, it was the first 10 minutes of that first day.

Visiting professor Reid was strutting before the class. She was expostulating over Cattle v. Stockton Waterworks, an 1875 case from the Mothercountry. “Who,” she asked, “can tell me the proposition for which this case stands?” She scanned the class and of the 150 or so freshly minted law students, she found me.

Why me? I will ask God when I meet him. There were — give or take — 150 of us in that lecture hall — and her blue-black, Beelzebub eyes shot to me.

Visiting professor Reid said, “Mr. Robbins?”

“Huh?” It was a brilliant way to begin my legal career.

“Tell us,” she said almost sweetly, “the proposition for which this case stands.”

Before law school, I had studied the sciences. The professor lectured, you listened, you took notes, you figured out the difficult stuff, and then you “got it.” There was a certain quantum of what you had to know and when you “got it,” you had that particular tiger by the tail. Law, I learned quickly, was nothing like that; there was no knowing, there were only arguments and interpretations.

In the instant before I froze, I thought that visiting professor Reid’s maw looked just like a little bird’s waiting for a warm, writhing worm.

Then I realized the inchworm she was anticipating was me.

“The proposition, Mr. Robbins.”

My lips ran over each other like a litter of blind puppies. “I believe …” I said at last and stood.

Her eyes sat me back down. They said, “This is not a military academy; this is law school.”

“… that the case is about economic loss.”

She harrumphed.

I thought I might have mollified her. At least until she said, “And?”


Her silence assured me that she was not done with me.

“And … well, the case is about …”

I stammered out something — exactly what, I can’t re-create. I had read the case, but I hadn’t read the case.

Visiting professor Reid seized on whatever it was I said like a hungry dog on a bone. “You did bother to read the case, Mr. Robbins, did you not?”

I nodded but, if not exactly rhetorical, the question was meant as a platform. And from it she dove. “Did you, Sir, brief the case?”

Not knowing what “briefing” a case meant, I said something like, “Ah … I don’t think so.”

Which she shot back at me, “You don’t think so?”

She tucked her angry little fists into the small of her back, looking like nothing except a vulture. I would soon get to know the type; they parade smugly about courtrooms. “Do you know what that means, Mr. Robbins? Briefing a case?”

“No, not exactly.”

“What, then do you think it means?”

I had to fess up. I said that I had no idea.

“Well, then,” visiting professor Reid said, “it’s best that you find out.”

Law school, Day 1; Socrates kicked my butt.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, or

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