Socratic Method, Tips for Success with Prof. Davis Offer Snapshot into JD Orientation

In a brilliant display of the Socratic Method, Professor Adrienne Davis transformed a JD Orientation session billed humbly as “Contracts” into a lively discussion that was more like a good-spirited “JD Boot Camp.”

Davis wears many hats at the law school and university—vice provost, the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law, director of the Black Sexual Economies Project for the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work &Social Capital, and founder and coordinator of the Law, Identity & Culture Initiative. But her mini course on Contracts proves that she is first and foremost a teacher—and a very good one.

After sharing an anecdote about a “special pen” given to her by a favorite professor more than 20 years ago, Davis snapped the more than 200 new students in a packed Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom to attention by calling one of them out by name.

“Mr. Adair? Is there a Mr. Adair here?” she asked from the podium. Two hands nervously went up.

“I’m sorry, I should have been more specific,” Davis said. “I’m looking for Jake Adair.”

One of the hands went down.

Lesson 1: No matter how big the class, always be ready to be called on. 

With the correct “Mr. Adair” identified, Davis told him that she was going to give him her special pen. But, she asked, what if she reneged on her promise of the pen—or what if she gave him the pen and it didn’t work? Had she promised him that the pen would work? Did Mr. Adair have any recourse?

She continued calling students out by name, questioning each about a specific scenario arising from her deceptively simple promise to give Mr. Adair her pen. Along the way, she introduced and illustrated, by way of example, a host of terms that should become second-nature after the students’ completion of their so to be held and much more intimate, Contracts class—“implied warranties,” “restitution,” “specific performance,” “explicit contracts,” “gratuitous transfer,” and “torts.”

During a discussion about the difference between wills and contracts, one student spoke while another was answering a question.

“Excuse me, someone else is talking,” Davis said.

Lesson 2: Don’t interrupt your classmates.  

Once she called out a name and no hands went up. She repeated the name; still no hands.

“Not here. OK, let’s move on—is there a Ms. Stevens in the room?”

A hand went up. A sigh of relief rose from the audience.

Lesson 3: Go to class. 

None of Davis’s questions were threatening or intimidating. In fact, the students spent more time smiling and laughing along as the spirited exchange between students and teacher continued. After an hour and a half that felt more like 15 minutes, Davis asked the students a non-contract-related question: “What scares you most about law school?” Now she had arrived at an essential purpose of her Orientation session share—to talk about what it takes to succeed as a law student.

Davis was one of several faculty members teaching mini courses as part of the week-long JD Orientation that also featured a formal Matriculation Ceremony, an introduction to legal research, small group discussions on professionalism, and public service projects. Professor Mae Quinn introduced students to Case Briefing and the Study of Law, while Professor John Inazu presented Constitutional Law; Professor Ronald Levin, Interpreting Statutory Law; Professor Pauline Kim, Civil Procedure; and Professor Leila Nadya Sadat, International Law.

As she transitioned into her advice about success in law school, Davis struck a chord. “Is anyone afraid that you’ll find someone smarter than you?” she asked to nervous laughter. “Well, you will—and you should. Before you came here, you were competing against people who didn’t have your skill set. Now, everybody has your skill set, and yes, there will always be someone smarter than you.”

Davis then spent the remainder of the class giving her advice for the new law students, skills that “are not rocket science, but are not intuitive”:  

  • Time management: “It’s not about how many hours you study, it’s about how well you study in the time you have.”
  • Synthesis: “Work to constantly integrate and synthesize what you are learning in your courses. Write a letter about what you’ve learned in class to help your understanding of legal doctrine.”
  • Practice: “Practice exams are on the library website; use them!”
  • Prepare for class: “When reading cases, always try to figure out why you have been asked to read that particular case for that particular class.”
  • Note taking: “Don’t tape lectures! I don’t want to listen to myself talk again, and I bet you don’t want to hear me again, either.”
  • Reading cases: “Always read the ending of the case first to determine what it ‘turns on.’”
  • Study groups: “Keep study groups small.”
  • Play: “Build in time for playing and relaxation. When you work, work—and when you play, play.”
  • Ending class: “Take five minutes to step back after the class is over and make sure you understand what has been presented. If you have questions, ask!”

With that, "JD Boot Camp" was over, and 200 new students rose for the rest of their day—encouraged, comforted, amused, and a little bit wiser about what lies ahead.

Click here to view videos and briefs from the Orientation courses.

Click here to view JD Orientation photo gallery.

By Timothy J. Fox