One of the things that many business school and law school students fear is being “cold called” in class. Some students think professors are out to get them, others too nervous to speak up in class, and some just unprepared for talk about the case. All those things happen here at Northwestern Law, just like every other school. Fortunately, the population here at the law school is older and more experienced than other law schools, so the students are usually pretty poised and cold calls often go smoothly. Also, the professors here are great. They’re usually pretty accommodating when they engage students in the Socratic method, and they ask lots of leading questions to help us get through rather than make us stumble.
All four of my professors have different styles for cold calling. They all seem to expect different things from us when it comes to level of detail, degree of analysis, and how much they’ll keep prodding after we respond. My Civil Procedure professor likes to go through cases really thoroughly. She expects everyone to be prepared to talk about the tiny little details of the case and then about how they relate to each step in the case process. To be such a technical class, she really does do a great job at illustrating the concepts as part of a bigger story and at keeping things interesting.
On the other end of the spectrum is my Criminal Law professor. He tends to be a bit more easy going about the cold call and at times serves more as a facilitator than a professor. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an incredibly talented professor and is one of the most knowledgeable instructors at the school, but he’s also good at keeping the course interesting and putting students in the position to succeed. Because of his facilitation style, a large number of people volunteer every class. Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to forget who got called on in the first place, which makes the cold call much less intimidating.
My section is about 65 people, so everyone should get called on two times for each class this semester. At Northwestern, there isn’t really a system of being “on call” like some schools have, rather, the process is a bit more random. Some professors go down the list in alpha order and others reverse order. Some just draw a name from the middle of a pile. And others seem to mirror students picked from other classes that week.
Last week, I got called on in Civil Procedure. I didn’t expect to get called on with only a few minutes left in class, but to my surprise I did. I also didn’t expect to get a small obscure case in back of the book, as opposed to the two main cases for class that day, both of which will likely be the core of our midterm. I faired okay, but it wasn’t my best performance. In Contracts, my professor called on me today. It was pretty unexpected, but luckily I got a pretty easy case. As usual, the JD-MBA side came out when I started talking. We discussed the concept of bargaining and talked about how exploitation impacts contractual agreements. For the specific case, I argued that exploitation was okay and that the company with all the negotiating leverage was entitled to win the case. In retrospect, while my comments were probably rational based on the facts they were also “laissez faire” and a bit unsympathetic.
After class, five or six of us went into the atrium and continued the conversation for an hour or so seeing if we could come up with a better answer. But as you might guess, we couldn’t. The cold call specifically and law school generally are often more about reasoning, problem solving, and synthesizing facts, and less about finding the right answer. Navigating this grey area can be really difficult, but discussions typically end up being a lot of fun.