Cold Calls

This week, I want to continue last week’s Zoom discussion (catch it here: by talking about my amazing professors! They’ve really kept this COVID-19 ship afloat, and it’s impressive who closely their online teaching mirrors their real-life style.

Of course, that means that cold calls a b o u n d. Cold calling is a law school teaching technique where professors randomly call on students to answer questions about the days’ reading. It’s based on the Socratic method, which originated in Ancient Greece and has been terrorizing students ever since. Cold calls are designed to lead students through a series of questions to land a single conclusion, while challenging a student’s assumptions and legal comprehension along the way.

But in my first year, I’ve realized there are many different types of Cold Call – it’s truly an art form. Therefore, I’ve included a classic Fear Scale rating for each professor so you can appreciate how varied they really are! On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 is a slight heart murmur when your name is called and 10 is a full-on heart attack. (And for my favorite Hollywood depiction of a scale 10 cold call, check this out:


Professor Rakoff, Contracts

Scare Factor: 4

Contracts was our first class ever, and we would read about five or six cases before each class. Professor Rakoff would call approximately one person per case to brief the facts, arguments of both sides, and court ruling. He would usually follow up with “Do you agree or not?” and ask for a short explanation, before hitting you with a small counterargument and asking you to respond. The calls weren’t long, but the cases sometimes had complex histories of litigation – and as brand-new 1Ls, we could barely remember who was the plaintiff and who was the defendant. It was never fun when Professor Rakoff hit you with the, “are you sure that’s what the court said?”

I got formally called once in this class (day before Halloween, to brief a case called Fry v. Elkins Co.) but informally called on several times. Unfortunately, I think it’s because I wasn’t very good at hiding confusion or dissent…the question was always, “so Riley, what are your thoughts on this?”)

Professor Spencer, Civil Procedure

Scare Factor: 3

Professor Spencer was our youngest and chillest professor, and it didn’t take long for us to figure that out! He lectured most of the time, and is the only professor to use a list of randomly generated numbers for cold-calling. He only got through 20-30 people the entire semester, and somehow the lack of names made the calls less intimidating. Also, Professor Spencer clearly didn’t care if you got something wrong while briefing a case. He’d just put his glasses on, look at his own casebook and say, “That’s not what’s going on here” and jot something on the blackboard. I never even got called – minimal pressure, for sure!

Professor Smith, Property

Scare Factor: 1

Professor Smith was a big ole softie. He’d usually cold call by saying “okay this case happened in Ohio…is anyone here from Ohio?” If no one volunteered, he would tentatively pick a name from his cold call chart. Then he’d immediately apologize, and allow them to reject the call if they wanted. So sweet.

Professor Smith also called one person per case and usually just asked for the facts. I honestly think he was more nervous to call on us, than the other way around! Unfortunately, he wasn’t always consistent with the “where are you from” calls. I was always ready to brief the Chicago cases, but he never asked for a resident on those. Shame.

Professor Davies, Legislation & Regulation

Scare Factor: 7

In my humble opinion, Professor Davies was THE scariest of our first semester professors. She did “popcorn calling,” where she would literally jump around the room, with no rhyme or reason, and tack your name onto the end of a question so you didn’t know it was coming until she was STARING AT YOU & WAITING FOR AN ANSWER.


Professor Davies is a badass partner from a big D.C. firm, and commuted to Cambridge to teach us every single week. Her mannerisms and direct, pointed questioning reflected that! She only asked one or two questions per person, and never stuck with one single person for too long. Even though her calls caused me MAJOR anxiety, I enjoyed her class a lot.

LRW I & II – Climenko Greg Elinson, LRW

Scare Factor: 0

LRW is the chillllllest of chill environments. It’s more of a conversation than a professor-student environment, and the only time Greg will call someone is if he’s looking for volunteers and no one bites. But even then, he asks questions like “what did you think was strong or weak about this article,” or “how could improve this speech?” It’s not even cold calling, it’s “light questioning” at best!

Of course, the course is not designed to be like the others (which are doctrinal and called “black letter law” classes). Learning how to do legal research and writing isn’t done by theorizing about old English cases!


Professor Yang, Criminal Law

Scare Factor: 5

Prof Yang is solidly middle-of-the-road on the scare scale. She is SUPER super nice, but her cold calls last longer than any other professor’s. She has a deck of cards for everyone in the class, and every time she moves to a new person she’ll pause and say, “So, Riley….” and dive into the first question. Her questions are usually pointed and have specific answers from the casebook, but require close attention to detail. She’ll let silence linger as the callee searches for an answer, but will throw out a page number when someone is really stuck.

I’ve been called once, in person, and it was one of the harder (and longer) calls so far. Basically, I had to lay out both the prosecution and defense arguments for a rape case – it was just as fun as it sounds. But I think I approached the call from a neutral point of view, and it was appropriate for my future on both sides of the argument!

Professor Fallon, Constitutional Law

Scare Factor: 3

The second semester version of Prof Smith! Professor Fallon is affectionately called “Winnie-the-Pooh” because he’s so nice. First of all, he only calls on each person once per week, maximum. Second, he calls in alphabetical order. Third, he only asks one or two questions per person. Fourth, his questions are often opinion-based, or can be answered based on his own PowerPoint slides. Professor Fallon’s questions always center around the methodology of the Supreme Court justices, not the facts of the cases themselves. And he allows MANY volunteers throughout the day.

I’ve been called twice in this class. They weren’t complete softballs but both times, his slides came in handy!

Professor Ginsburg, Comparative Legal

Scare Factor: 4

Professor Ginsburg has lectured more and cold called less since we moved to Zoom, but it’s not off the table. He still calls on people whenever he’s lacking volunteers. Two things make this unfortunate. First, they’re never soft calls – if you get called, you better be prepared and you better give a detailed answer. Second, the class is mostly comprised of 2Ls, 3Ls, and international students. They are a) already familiar with core 1L legal concepts and b) not afraid to turn their cameras off and dip out on class. They know they’re going to pass, and I kind of admire them. But at the same time THAT’S MORE CALLS FOR THE REST OF US!

We have a ton of complicated reading for each class, so I volunteer often to stay off the cold-call radar. Nonetheless, I have gotten sniped – you just can’t escape it.

Professor Gersen, Torts

Scare Factor: 8

Prof Gersen wins the award for Scariest Cold Call, hands down. But I really enjoy his class, and I think the sentiment is shared by many. We’re probably all bonded by trauma – no one escapes his calls without some level of confusion.

Like Prof Davies, Professor Gersen is a popcorn caller – but he wasn’t great about calling everyone. Before transitioning to Zoom I got six cold calls and a friend of mine only got one. The difference? I was in his line-of-sight while the friend sat on the opposite side of the room. Also, you NEVER KNOW what kind of cold call Professor Gersen is going to give you. Sometimes, it’s the facts of the case; more often, it’s a wild hypothetical; worst of all, it’s the “string-of-words” challenge, where he’ll just say:

“Bessie, Bolton, 7 ft fence, strict liability, negligence, go.”

And you go. Connect the dots, right then & there. String-of-words used to be the worst type, but Zoom introduced a new version where you read a PowerPoint slide to the class, and then explain it real-time. I’ve been personally victimized by this type of call and it was not my favorite.

However, Professor Gersen’s calls have evened out significantly because he can’t see anyone, so that’s nice!

1L Cold Call Reflections

Overall, cold calling is very very scary as a new 1L. You don’t know anyone, you don’t know anything, and most of all, you DON’T want to look stupid. But it gets better!! As you get to know the professors you realize they don’t expect perfection, they just expect effort. Plus, they were hired to teach at Harvard Law – there’s nothing you could say that they a) haven’t already thought of, or b) haven’t heard before.

There was also a noticeable difference between first semester and second semester. During the second go-around, it only took a few weeks to figure out each professor’s style and tailor our prep and answers accordingly. Plus, the fear of looking dumb is (largely) gone, and you’re much more comfortable thinking on your feet. Cold calls still aren’t fun, but with the exception of Torts they’re no longer heart attack-inducing. Hallelujah!