The Infamous Cold Call: Should You Be Terrified?

In law school, the primary method of teaching, at least in larger classes and especially during the first year, is referred to as the Socratic method. A professor will call on and question a student (usually at random) about the day’s assigned reading, typically a judge’s written decision or case. You’re asked what happened to cause the dispute, what position the opposing sides took and argued, and how the court reasoned through the issue. This happens in front of the eighty or so other students in class.  Public speaking consistently ranks among our greatest fears. The cold call in law school has you speaking in public without much preparation because you cannot know exactly what question will be put to you.

I didn’t know cold calling was a thing in law school until family and friends started asking me if I was nervous about it. I did some research and became terrified – and while it’s normal to feel that way, let me tell you why it might not be justified.

I was relieved to learn that the cold call at BC Law does not warrant any terror. My first semester, I was exposed to three different cold call styles. One professor preferred a classic approach. Looking through the class roster, she randomly selected a student with whom she discussed an entire case. That student would be “on call” for thirty to sixty minutes, and was the first to receive questions about the facts, arguments and reasoning presented by that case. The professor would often open the discussion up to the entire class, when, for example, the chosen student got stuck, or if there was a particularly divisive issue involved. This approach was difficult because of how long you could be on call for. The upshot was that you could only get called on once, so you could relax after your day. Some students were never called on at all during the semester.

Another professor used a panel approach. At the beginning of class, he announced the names of ten students who were on call that class. He asked each student two to three questions and moved onto the next person. If the person he initially called on took a long pause, or indicated they didn’t know the answer, he moved down the list. From the beginning of class, you knew whether or not you could relax and focus on taking notes.  The days you were on call weren’t so easy. When I heard my name called, I spent most of class reviewing my notes, not taking any new ones, trying to predict what he would ask me and preparing my answer.

A third professor proceeded through the entire class list alphabetically, and called on three to four people per class. He wouldn’t announce who was on call, but as long as you knew the first letter of your last name, you could figure out with decent probability when you would be on call and when to be more prepared. This approach combined aspects of the two described above. You weren’t on call for an entire case, but fielded more than two or three questions. You weren’t called on completely at random, but weren’t guaranteed to be called on the day you figured you might be.

Professor Cassidy uses a method that you have to appreciate. He spreads out a seating chart with each student’s name and picture on it in front of him. Having subtly glanced at the chart several minutes beforehand, he looks at and calls on someone by first name, as if you have been life-long friends. If you don’t know the answer to the question, or cop to not having done the reading, he turns to the person sitting next to you and calls on them instead. Assuming you sit near your friends, it’s your responsibility to be prepared so that they won’t be placed in your hot seat.

Despite portrayals in movies (The Paper Chase, Legally Bonde), professors will not waste class time berating or embarrassing you for not completing the reading you should have done. A professor is more likely to move onto another student or to provide the answer than to attempt and draw it out from you when it’s clear you won’t know. The best advice I received, and what some professors will tell you to do, is to admit to not being prepared, letting them move on more quickly.  Saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t do the reading” may be the easiest way to deal with this situation. Know that the professor likely won’t make it a big deal – but be aware that you may have made yourself a target for next class, so do not make a habit of it. You can probably use this once per semester. It’s important to remember that professors at BC are very understanding; if there’s a reason you cannot complete the reading, send them an email explaining why or go see them in person, then they will know not to call on you that class and, by opening up to them, you can begin to build a relationship that goes beyond the classroom.

What can be more vexing is when you did the reading, but do not know the precise answer to a question you are posed. This will be the situation during most cold calls. When professors can tell you’re circling the answer they’re looking for, or have a variation on it, they’re more likely to stick with you. Professors don’t expect you to have the right answer every time – what would be the point of class if you did? Giving the completely or slightly wrong answer, especially when it’s informed by your interpretation of the assigned case, will help them flesh out a common mistake in thinking about the legal issue you are learning. If you made that mistake in thinking, it’s inevitable that others in your class made the same mistake. Some professors will begin the semester by telling the class that they prefer a wrong answer, because it helps them teach the class common pitfalls and ways to avoid them. There also aren’t right answers to every question. Some issues are about interpretation, and novel ideas that assume different perspectives are appreciated. Dean Yen describes the Socratic method and cold calling process as “intellectual sparring.” It’s okay to challenge professors, to contend that the answer they had in mind isn’t the one that you would give – but you need to have sound reasoning to back it up.

Thinking about a cold call, and learning the law in general, it’s helpful to use Samuel Beckett’s adage on failure as a mantra. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again.Fail again. Fail better.”  Learning in general, but the learning that occurs during the first year of law school especially, is a process of figuring out how to fail better. Everyone in law school is learning, and everyone will get called on. You are inevitably the only person who will remember what answer you gave, and the flaws with it, five minutes after you gave it.

Instead of terrorizing, I found being called on could be fun – after the initial panic and adrenaline subsided. Even on days when I felt prepared, sometimes the professor posed a question I had no good answer to. In those situations, I tried my best to give the professor something they could work with.  Usually they would give some words of encouragement, and then start to ask more specific questions to clue me towards the answer they were looking for.

The cold class is essential to building a skill all lawyers need, the ability to think on your feet. If you’re like most law students, you plan on being in court one day, where a judge will face you, and like class, you cannot predict what questions she will ask. If you’re like most practicing attorneys, however, you won’t be in court all that much. This doesn’t make the cold call less salient to your preparation as a lawyer. When sitting down with a client, you have to be ready for anything, and it will benefit you to provide concise, coherent responses to unexpected questions. Keeping this in mind, the cold call is probably best viewed, as one esteemed professor puts it, as an AFGO. Another f—ing growth opportunity.

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