Bruce Gottlieb

I had my first brush with the Socratic Method today. For those who are blissfully ignorant, the S/M is a standard law-school teaching practice. The professor does not say what s/he thinks of a particular case but teases out fundamental aspects by asking students a series of leading questions. A former boss who’s been through law school calls it the Guess-What-I’m-Thinking-Today Game.

I began the day with a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, thoughtfully prepared by my roommate, who is not a law student. Then off to my first class, Contracts, taught by Professor Warren.

A Two-L I know had Warren last year and says she’s great. But I was warned to write down, word for word, the definition of “assumpsit” in the margin of my book.

“Assumpsit,” in case you’re wondering, is literally the first word in the case we read for class today. The case hinges on a revolting incident from the 1920s wherein a doctor transplanted skin from an adolescent’s chest to his hand. The hand turned into a horrid pus-filled mess, and when the poor fellow left the hospital three months later, his palm was covered with a thick layer of hair. He sued the doctor, who was by all accounts a nasty, opportunistic charlatan. (The patient ultimately won $1,400 in damages.)

At any rate, the dictionary tells me “assumpsit” means “a legal action for breach of contract or promise not under seal.” Last year Professor Warren began class by asking a randomly chosen student, “What’s assumpsit?” Her victim, a Mr. Wang, naturally had no answer. For the rest of the semester, whenever the day’s reading included an obscure word, Professor Warren rang out with “Maybe Mr. Wang can help us?”

Sure enough, class began with “What’s assumpsit?” I was dying to field this one–if I remember anything from law school in 20 years, it will surely be the definition of assumpsit–but some other poor fool was picked.

Then, much to my horror, I heard Professor Warren call my name and ask something about the disposition of the “nonsuit.”

The fourth line in the case is “… upon which a nonsuit was ordered, without exception.” I am still not entirely clear what this means. But I’d anticipated the possibility of being asked and read off the definition I’d penned in the margin of my casebook last night: “a judgment given against a plaintiff who neglects to prosecute, or who fails to show a legal cause of action.”

It was perfectly clear to Professor Warren, I imagine, that was I out to sea on this one. So she asked if I knew who declared the nonsuit. I thought the term described a counter-action against a frivolous charge and guessed that the defendant had declared it. As it turns out, a nonsuit means that a charge is thrown out of court. Naturally, defendants don’t get to decide whether an accusation against them may be thrown out. Professor Warren got quite a chuckle out of my answer, as did the rest of my classmates when it was explained to them. Whoops.

All in all, it wasn’t such a bad first class. For one thing, around 30 of my 140 classmates were similarly grilled during the 90-minute period. For another, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m going to be an idiot about reading cases for the next few weeks. Understanding judicial opinions is not something that comes naturally to the human mind, I think. For instance, I learned today in my Property section that the existence of the line “276 U.S. 272 (1927)” in the upper right of a mimeographed page should have told us that this opinion was from the Supreme Court. (Someone else got that one wrong, thank heavens.) But then Professor Schill admitted that he went through the first semester of law school without knowing exactly what “common law” meant, which helped.

I’ve always understood the justification for S/M to be that it prepares lawyers to think on their feet, which it probably does. Scott Turow, in his book on Harvard Law School (One-L), says it’s a chance for professors to prove that they’re smarter than students, which may also be true. My feeling so far is that it’s mostly meant to scare the dickens out of us, to make us study harder. I think my section got that message loud and clear today.

I spent the afternoon working on a magazine article I’m writing, and the evening reading cases. Tomorrow I have to be at school at 8:30 for more S/M.