As unfamiliar as the case method will be to most 1Ls, the real source of anxiety is the way the professor presents it. Simply put, Socratic instruction entails directed questioning and limited lecturing. There are law professors who are alleged to have gone an entire semester without uttering a declarative statement. Though the Socratic Method has passed out of vogue in the last decade, it remains a common instruction style in many law schools. The case method already places a dizzying burden on a 1L, but when combined with the Socratic Method, it leaves many feeling helpless.
Generally, the Socratic professor invites a student to attempt a cogent summary of a case assigned for that day's class. Regardless of the accuracy and thoroughness of the student's initial response, he or she is then grilled on details overlooked or issues unresolved. A professor will often manipulate the facts of the actual case at hand into a hypothetical case that may or may not have demanded a different decision by the court.
At its best, this approach forces a reasonably well-prepared student to go beyond the immediately apparent issues in a given case to consider its broader implications. The dialogue between the effective Socratic instructor and his victim-of-the-moment will also force non-participating students to question their underlying assumptions of the case under discussion. It also hones the law student's critical reasoning skills and prepares her to litigate before tough judges.
At its worst, the Socratic Method subjects an unprepared student to ruthless scrutiny and fosters an unhealthy adversarial relationship between an instructor and his students.