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.

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