Senior Stories

Socratic Method and Other Tortures

Socratic Method

It was the last examination of my last year in law school. The class was Remedies which details what damages can be awarded in any successful civil lawsuit.

Public Discourse: Is Civility Dead?

I had finished the first two essay questions and still had two hours left. Then I put a blank sheet into my Selectric and started on the third and last one. After typing almost four pages, I threw them all away. The conclusion wasn’t right. I tried again. Two pages later, I knew I was still on the wrong track. By this time I had a little less than an hour left. On the new sheet, I typed: “I wouldn’t even take this case.” I stated my reasons and offered advice to the client. I reread my paper and handed it in with minutes to spare. By now the exam room was empty. I gathered my belongings and walked out.

My friends were waiting.  I told them what I wrote and each one agreed I had failed the exam. About a month later I received an award for the highest grade in that class because I had understood the client didn’t have a case.

California State Bar Test

It was 6:00 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1996. The California State Bar Test results were finally available and I was trying to access their website. My hands were shaking and I could hardly type. Finally, my friend typed in my name and password. Five minutes passed and my name still didn’t appear. I was sure I didn’t pass. Finally, the screen came up:

Barbara Barrett, it is our pleasure to announce you have successfully passed the California State Bar Examination. Congratulations!

I yelled with joy. My first time taking the Bar and I had passed! On December 5th, just three months short of my 58th birthday, I was sworn in as an attorney in the State of California and the US District Court, Northern Division. It took four and a half years of working full time, going to school four nights a week, not getting home much before 10:00, studying weekends, lunches, breaks, and even while I stood in lines–every minute available, in order to accomplish it.

My friends teased me about not having a life. I laughed and told them they were wrong. I was on a first-name basis with every law librarian in town. When someone asked me if it was a life long dream, I shook my head. Getting into law school was more a miracle than getting through it, although between the two, I probably used up most of the miracles allotted to me in my lifetime.

Law School Debate Team

Attending law school was a series of serendipitous events. It began with a community college class “Introduction to Formal Argument.” My teacher was the Debate Coach at San Jose State University. For each side of a debate, I learned to prepare three cases: my argument, the strong points my opponent might use, and an item by item rebuttal to those points. This was a valuable exercise to help us understand both the pro and con issues and problems. For Capital Punishment, we prepared cases for both sides. This was pre-internet so to prepare, I did a lot of research at the library. I had no knowledge of debates so I attended two of them at San Jose State. The flip of the coin gave me the pro-capital punishment side first and two weeks later I presented my argument against.

My instructor invited me to join the SJSU Debate Team. Although debating was an exhilarating experience, I particularly enjoyed the research and writing. I decided to see what careers require these skills. A month later I enrolled in the Santa Clara University paralegal program.

Paralegal Program

I loved the classes and especially enjoyed reading the actual cases. Several teachers told me I should attend law school but I brushed those suggestions aside. Too many obstacles. I couldn’t afford to quit working and go deeply into debt. I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree which major law schools required and none of them offered night classes. So, I continued with my paralegal studies.

That didn’t last long. At a party, a stranger “by chance” overheard me talking about my law school woes and suggested Lincoln Law School. It only required an AA degree, the tuition was significantly less and wonder of wonders, they had night school so I could continue working. I passed the LSAT and applied to Lincoln.

Lincoln Law School

On January 27th, 1992, I was sitting in my first law class. It was Contracts. I couldn’t believe I was there. It had been a little over four months since I decided to be an attorney. Every obstacle had been overcome and here I was! I gazed around the room, trying not to stare at everyone. There were about 40 students ranging in age from late twenties to mid-fifties.

The first thing I learned is law schools do not teach law. Instead, you buy heavy (and expensive) books filled with cases. Law professors drill you mercilessly about each one using the Socratic Method, a system that questioned (mostly in a demeaning and sarcastic style) students’ assumptions, conclusions, and understandings. We studied cases because the law is what the courts say it is–today. While law school does not teach the law, you have to know each element of a statute or code in order to know whether it was violated. It’s a system designed to test your sanity–and your endurance. At Lincoln, we had four-night classes per week, and each assigned 25-50 pages. That meant reading, outlining, and understanding 20-30 cases per week per class.

Luckily I loved the cases. As a writer, I saw each one as a mini-story about people, their disputes, and the court ruling. In addition to Contracts and Criminal Law, we had Civil Procedure and Torts that first year.

Contracts Law Exam

In March I had my first Contracts’ midterm. What a shock! I got a D minus and almost fainted. I never had such a low grade and was very discouraged until I discovered most of my classmates got pretty much the same. Lincoln had a very tough class schedule and grading policy. Most law schools take only top graduating students so they have a preliminary elimination process. Lincoln used testing to eliminate poor students.

Since Lincoln wasn’t a California accredited school during my first year, we had to pass the “Baby Bar” in June in order to start the second year. It was a shorter version of the State Bar. There were three one hour essays in the morning and one hundred multiple-choice questions in the afternoon. Lincoln School exams consisted of four forty-five minute essays per class. The Baby Bar was easier in a way but the pressure was tremendous. Several students were sick in the bathroom before the test started. I only ate yogurt before the exams. The multiple-choice questions were the most difficult. It seemed to me the answers were either all correct or all wrong.

Law School Exam Success

Somehow, I passed. Out of the 40 people who started in January 1992, only 21 took that exam. Either because their grades were below a C or they had left school. After the exam, there were only 11 of us from the original class and we were merged with the incoming fall students. During our first class of Criminal Law, our professor said only one out of every three persons in the class would be there next year. I remember smiling as I looked around the room. When he asked why I was smiling, I told him I was just wondering who the other 12 would be. He said this was the attitude we needed.

Law School Courses and Professors

The second-year was Real Property, Constitutional Law (my favorite) Sports and Entertainment Law, Research and Writing, and Professional Responsibility. That summer we had Moot Court. We were given the facts in a case and actually presented our arguments before a real judge. Again, I spent a lot of time in the law library. But the judge gave me an Excellent grade so it was worth it.

The third-year was Evidence (with exciting discussions about the OJ trial); Corporations, Bankruptcy, and Community Property. The fourth-year was Criminal Procedure, Wills and Trusts, Remedies, Land Use, Administrative Law, Trial Practice, and during two weekends, we studied Arbitration and Mediation.

Wills: Every Senior Needs One ASAP

Lincoln professors were practicing attorneys and our classes covered all 13 possible State Bar subjects. These classes were mandatory at Lincoln. Many students from big-name universities could choose not to take classes that would affect their GPA.

During my last year, I was Editor-in-Chief of Law Review, a legal publication compiled and published by law students. We were a small school so we received very few submissions. Still, each one had to be fact-checked and proofread with references correctly cited.

Law School Secret Society

I enjoyed law school. Most of us spent the first year trying to determine what our professors wanted. Obviously, they had some big secret that once learned would put us into the ranks of a secret society. Actually, it was a very “simple” thing called IRAC: what is the Issue? What is the Rule of law? Analyze how the rule applies to the facts in the issue and draw a Conclusion. After that last question on the Remedies final exam, I understood IRAC better and felt I was ready for the State Bar.

It was “showtime.” Testing was six hours a day for three days. Three one hour essays each morning and 100 multiple choice questions each afternoon. The questions were taken from all 13 law subjects. I had studied hard. Fortunately, I passed because there was no way I was going through that again.

I only practiced law for a short time. Age was one factor. The salaries for new attorneys were much lower than I had been earning. Not only are malpractice insurance and annual Bar fees costly, but the California Bar also has additional educational and financial restrictions and any infractions are grounds for disbarment. Just too much trouble and expense. After two years, I requested and received an “Inactive” status.

Socratic Method Conclusion

Was Law School worth it? If all I learned was law, the answer is no. The hated Socratic Method and other forms of torture taught us to think and that made it worthwhile. While working on that last question in Remedies and ripping pages from my typewriter, I was very angry with my Professor for writing such an obnoxious question. As I struggled, I didn’t realize within its depths was a hidden lesson that would impact my writing. That night I learned the importance of focusing on what is and is not relevant to what I want to say.

How does relevance apply to writing? I’m inspired by a sculptor who, when asked how he created such lovely works of art from a marble block, responded that he chipped away everything that wasn’t the statue.

About the Author

Barbara Barrett is a published author and poet who is currently working on a book of her short stories and poems. She has written many nonfiction articles for blogs, websites, and fanzines on various subjects, including award-winning essays on author and poet Robert E. Howard. In tribute to his extraordinary ability to create images and moods, she published “The Wordbook. An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard.” Her interests include current discoveries in scientific subjects such as Quantum Mechanics and Astronomy.

She’s held a variety of interesting positions throughout her life. These include working as an executive secretary/assistant to CEOs in Silicon Valley, also for Jet Propulsion Lab in the 1960s, and for the US Army Aeronautical Research Lab at NASA in Mountain View, California. Barbara’s positive attitude toward being a senior can be summed up in her reply to a high school box-boy who told her he was born in 1999: “Well, you’ve really missed a lot.”


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