Picks and Pans Review: The Socratic Method

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Michael Levin

After one too many courtroom battles, playwright George S. Kaufman proposed formation of the Shakespeare Was Right Society. It was a move meant to demonstrate solidarity with his esteemed colleague, who in Henry VI, Part 2 wrote "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Kaufman would have found much to savor in this first novel, set at the mythical McKinley Law School. Method's protagonist is Rebecca Shepard, a former securities lawyer bucking to become McKinley's first tenured female professor. By McKinley standards, her classroom methods are unorthodox—she doesn't humiliate or bully students or use the Socratic method, a style of teaching by questioning. Her fondness for practical jokes and a romance with a student also make tenure a very dim prospect. But one can only wonder why Rebecca wants tenure at all when it would mean a career spent with Prof. Ronald Blotchett, the "Blotch," who recommends women students for prestigious clerkships based on their performances on his office couch, or with Murray Frobisher, the old maidish criminal law professor and defense attorney par excellence who's known around campus as the Virgin Murray. His clients "shared two characteristics: a boundless capacity for antisocial behavior and great personal wealth." At his best, Levin, a graduate of Columbia University law school, satirizes the legal education system as effectively as Calvin Trillin satirized newsmagazines in Floater and Kingsley Amis did academia in Lucky Jim. "To a first-year law student," he writes, "a law professor's power seems equal to that of God, but far more visible. God speaks in general terms about His expectations for human behavior; law professors post lengthy, complex, and tedious assignments on bulletin boards...God waits for Man, yea, until the day of his death; first-year law professors wait about 20 seconds before they give up on one student and call on someone else. God loves all His creatures equally. First-year law professors grade on a curve." What keeps Method from being an unalloyed delight, however, is Levin's tendency to forget that he is writing a novel rather than a polemic. Too often the characters seem merely like mouthpieces—for example, when Rebecca says, "By teaching Securities Regulation I am striking a blow for women's rights. Do you know how many women law professors teach Securities in this country? A handful. A small handful. Do you know how many women law professors have ever gotten tenure in Securities Law? None. Zero." There's a lot of such verbiage, but the reader who can skip over it will find wonderful madness in Levin's Method. (Simon and Schuster, $17.95)

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