2.3 – Handling Cold Calls


Handling Cold Calls

In this lesson, I want to talk about how you should approach cold calls. These are situations where you're in class and the professor calls on you and says, "Can you discuss this case with me? Can you tell me the facts of this case? What were the arguments in this case?" And the particular questions that you're asked are going to vary; different professors like to ask different kinds of questions in cold calls. But I want to focus on, how can you approach these scenarios, and how can you get the most out of them, and how can you prepare for them?


Don't get scared, not a big deal

The first thing I want you to do is to relax and not worry so much about them. These are much lower stakes than you feel they are, especially your first semester of law school. They can be very excruciating, very anxiety-producing. These are situations where you're really in front of an audience. Maybe it's a class that has ninety students in it, and you're being put on the spot and you're being asked to answer questions in front of your peers.

The first time you're called on, you're going to be scared, you're going to be nervous, your heart is going to be racing. All I can say is, it's really not as big of a deal as you think it is. One reason it's not as big of a deal as you think it is, is because it actually doesn't really matter in terms of your grade most of the time. Now, some courses grade your class participation to some degree, but even professors that do that, usually your class participation is going to be a very small percentage of your grading. Your grade is largely going to be determined on the basis of an exam that you're going to take weeks or months later.

So, how you perform in any particular cold call is unlikely to have any bearing or, at the most, very, very, very small bearing on your actual grade in the class. You're also likely to feel that you're doing much worse than you really are. I have all sorts of experiences where I call on someone in class and it goes fine. It goes like any other interaction with a student, and then later that day, the student comes and sees me and says, "I'm so sorry for my terrible performance in class."

I say, "What are you talking about? You were totally fine. There was nothing wrong with your performance." But the student has built this up in their head because they're evaluating themselves much more critically. It's really easy to feel like I'm doing really badly, the people around me are doing so much better. Just remind yourself that's mostly in your head. Again, this is really much lower stakes than you think it is. I think it also helps to try to understand why do professors do this? Why is this such an important part of the law school experience?

Cold-Calling Builds Communication Skills

Understand that being on the spot is essential for lawyers.

Not every professor does it, but I think most professors have some form of cold calling, some form of Socratic method, even if not everyone is a true old-school Socratic professor that never says actually what they think or what the law is. Here's why I do it at least. One is I think it's important to teach people communication skills. I said in the previous lesson that one of the things that being a lawyer is, is being able to speak clearly about the law, being able to communicate about the law, and being on the spot sometimes.

You'll be in a lot of situations as a young lawyer where you are going to be on the spot and asked to explain something. Let's say you go work for a law firm and you're an associate at that firm, how do you think you're going to be asked to communicate? A lot of times you're going to be called into a partner's office and asked about a case that you've been researching. The partner will say, "Tell me about this. What about this issue?" You need to be able to just figure out how to do that. That is an important part of being a lawyer, not to mention the fact that many lawyers are actually going to be required to do this in court.

You might go give an oral argument. You might go give an argument in front of a jury. Being able to speak about the law and being put on the spot, it's just a really critical skill for a lawyer, and you might as well start developing it now. I think the Socratic method is also useful because it really does help students learn things. It's true, a professor could just stand up there and tell you all the things he or she wants you to learn, but the reason that I do Socratic is because there are things that I want students to figure out a little bit for themselves.

I like asking questions so that students learn the kinds of questions they should be asking themselves when they read something, and the student can realize, "Hey, here's something that I missed. Here's something I didn't think to ask when I was reading this material and I should have, and maybe next time I read a different case, I'll ask that question myself because I want to be able to figure out the answer to that question."

Socratic Method as a Tool

Then finally, we often use the Socratic method to help the students realize that they actually have the tools they need to figure out what the law is. The information they have is all in front of them and maybe they just haven't put the pieces together. There's a process where we use the Socratic method and you can really see the student putting the pieces together and really understanding, "Oh, okay. Now I see what the law is." That's very, very satisfying to the professor and I hope it's a good learning experience for the students.

Enjoy Cold-Calling

Learning and benefiting from the experience

I think it's helpful for you to recognize professors aren't doing this to be mean, they're not doing it as a form of hazing. There actually are pretty significant pedagogical goals here and it really does relate to the kinds of skills that we hope that you will develop to become a successful lawyer. With that in mind, you should think about cold calling as really an experience to look forward to, an experience to enjoy, or at the very least, an experience to feel like you are getting something out of your law school experience. You're really learning something. It's a real chance to learn.

It's a way that law school classes really become interactive and I think much more interesting than a class where a professor just stands up there and lectures at you. How do you make the most of these? Keep in mind, for any given class, there's only some chance that you will be called on that class. In particularly big classes, you might only get called on a few times per semester. What that means is you want to be preparing for the cold calls and thinking about cold calls, every class, even when you're not likely to get called on.

Anytime the professor is calling on anyone, play along with it. In your own head, think, "What's the answer to that question? How would I have answered that question?" Do that in your head. The more you do that, the more prepared you're going to be when you actually get called on the next time. Look for themes, look for the kinds of questions that the professor asks. Maybe your professor is someone who always asks about the procedural posture of the case. The professor is particularly interested in procedural questions.

What does that suggest to you? That suggests that when you're reading, maybe that's a thing to be aware of. That's a thing to be aware of because it might help you be more prepared when you're actually called on in class. Also, it's not just about how to do well when you're called on, because as I told you a few minutes ago, that's really not that important. If you have a bad day being called on where you don't know the answers, really, nothing particularly bad is going to happen to you. It's unlikely even to affect your grade.

Nonetheless, there might be a reason your professor is emphasizing certain things. Maybe that's something that your professor is particularly likely to test on an exam. You should be really attentive to the kinds of questions that are being asked and learn to ask those questions for yourself and to keep those questions in mind as you read your cases.

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