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Degrees and Courses Outside Law School

published January 25, 2013

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Just as the world of legal practice has become ever more specialized, so too have law schools tried to offer multiple courses in every popular (and not so popular) specialty. Whether this means traditional specialties such as labor law, or new ones such as any of the various corporate transactional areas, schools have tried with varying degrees of success to keep pace with the market. Some schools offer formal concentrations, akin to majors in college, but whether or not a school formalizes its offerings matters less than the availability of the appropriate courses and professors.

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Law schools have recently recognized that law is increasingly tied to other fields. This has been reflected in the increase in joint-degree programs they offer as well as the law schools' increased recruitment of professors with doctorates in other fields (in addition to their JDs). Unfortunately, these same schools are extremely ungenerous in the number of courses they permit law students to take for credit in other parts of the university. Thus, in law schools requiring approximately 30 courses in total, generally no more than two (or three, in some schools) may be taken elsewhere in the university. This parochialism is particularly unfortunate in view of the way these same schools market themselves. Law schools routinely brag about all of the marvelous courses on offer throughout the university of which they are a part and make it sound as though it is a simple matter for one of their students to take advantage of these course offerings. Unfortunately, the reality fails to live up to the rhetoric. This is a policy sorely in need of modernization.

Joint Degrees

Joint-degree programs offer students the opportunity to study law and another field, more or less at one and the same time. A typical program, the JD-MBA, has students do their first-year at the law school (following the usual first-year law curriculum), their second year at the business school (following the usual first-year business curriculum), and their last two years taking a mixture of law and business courses. The time required to get the two degrees is four years, one fewer than would be required if the student did each degree separately. This saving of a year in study time is typical for joint programs, not just the JD-MBA, The integration of programs leads to this saving of time.

The top law schools now offer a full range of joint degrees, at both the master's and the doctoral levels. Yale, for instance, offers joint degrees with the schools of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Divinity, and Medicine, in addition to the more common arrangements with the School of Management and the Graduate School (meaning the usual departments such as economics, history, and the like). The University of Pennsylvania offers joint programs in business administration and other commonly pursued fields; it also offers joint programs in such unusual fields as bioethics, city planning, communications, and Islamic studies.

Although only a relatively small number of students pursues any of these programs (apart from the JD-MBA), the variety of programs on offer across the whole set of leading schools is truly impressive. Not every school offers a JD-MS Forestry or JD-MA Islamic Studies possibility, of course, so it is essential to research the specific degree options at each school.

A relatively new development is the opportunity to get two law degrees. Cornell, for instance, offers a chance to get both a JD and a Maitrise en Droit (French) or an M.LL. (German) degree at an affiliated European University. Students spend two years at Cornell followed by two years at the respective European University. There are, of course, some potential disadvantages to doing a joint degree.

Joint degrees generally require more time (and money) than a single degree. Any sort of joint degree is also likely to limit the number of courses you can take that are totally unrelated to the two fields.

Publications

The top law schools have anywhere from a handful to a dozen and half publications that are edited by students. Georgetown, for instance, publishes the Georgetown Law Journal, American Criminal Law Review, Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law Policy, Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, Law & Policy in International Business, Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, and The Tax Lawyer, Despite the impressiveness of this listing, it is by no means inclusive of all of the many fields such journals cover.

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The "law review" (called the "law journal" in Georgetown's case) is the flagship publication of each law school. It features articles by professors and practitioners, edited by second- and third-year students. Membership of the law review is immensely prestigious; being the editor-in-chief is extraordinarily so.

At some schools, membership is determined by first-year grades; those with the highest grades are invited to join. At other schools, membership is determined solely through a writing competition: Prospective members write lengthy articles, with the best writers being invited to join. At still other schools, membership is determined by a combination of these two methods. Being an editor of the law review involves as much hard work as it does prestige. Editors commonly put more time into their law review efforts than they do preparing for classes.

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The other publications offer similar opportunities for learning, but at somewhat less rarefied levels. The competition to become an editor at these other publications tends to be much less intense than for the law review; the degree of competition varies according to the place of the specific journal in the clear, if informal, pecking order of the journals. Subject-specific journals, such as a labor law journal, offer the additional prospect of gaining subject-specific knowledge. As a result, the competition to gain prestigious and influential positions on them will likely be limited to those intending labor law careers.

Student Body

The student body at the top schools has changed considerably over the years. The ratio of men to women is commonly fairly equal; the percentage of women ranges from about 43 percent to 48 percent at typical schools. The percentage of minority students is climbing, having almost tripled in the last three decades. The percentage of international students, although still low, has increased dramatically in the last decade. Students come from a number of different educational and professional backgrounds. The percentage of students with work experience has overtaken that of the "traditional" applicant, the recent college graduate. Columbia, for instance, lists its entering class as containing: professional dancers and theatre managers; Peace Corps, VISTA, and military veterans; physicists, engineers, biochemists; management, computer. Website, trademark, and environmental consultants; professional musicians; editors and publishers; university professors and high school teachers; accountants and financial analysts; and human rights advocates.

Much of the learning experience in a high-quality program comes from your fellow students, who can give real-life insights into problems, based upon their recent experiences. The range of different jobs, industries, and educational backgrounds makes for a rich mixture of relevant experience to bring to bear in classroom discussions and study-group sessions. Whatever their work backgrounds, the different students have several things in common. They are invariably highly motivated as well as quite intelligent, and have been extremely successful in whatever they have done so far.

These are not just people you will work with, and compete with, during your time together in law school. You will form lifelong friendships with some of them and may well work for the same firm with some, too. Your law school colleagues represent your future network of contacts, the people who will be your clients and partners and sources of job information.

Social Life

Some suspect that the only way law students manage to have any social life at all is by sleeping very little. There is a lot of truth in this. The time pressure inherent in demanding programs ensures that only the truly energetic can manage a social or family life in addition to their studies (at least during the first half of the program). The bulk of law students, however, are energetic enough to live at least a moderately social existence.

Social life differs greatly from one program to the next. At all schools, however, student clubs and organizations will be the focus of substantial time and effort. Many of these are pre-professional clubs designed to educate students about the fields. An Environmental Law Society, for example, may hold forums at which participants in major disputes discuss their experiences and argue their points of view. In addition, it will help members get jobs in environmental law by inviting speakers and recruiters to visit and discuss the field—and their respective firms—with interested members. The leading schools tend to have a magnificent range of such clubs, covering everything from Criminal Law to Internet Law.

Not all student clubs are an extension of the job search. Many sports and activities can be found on a typical campus. These are likely to be open to spouses and even children. Like the pre-professional clubs, these offer the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and other desirable attributes, as well as energy and love of a given activity. Advocacy and action groups also abound. Examples include Civil Liberties Unions, Prison Legal Assistance Projects, and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Programs.

Of course, not all student social life revolves around clubs. Student parties fortunately are a staple of law programs, with the excuse for holding one varying from the need to get away from studying when the pressure is greatest to the need to take advantage of the opportunity when the pressure is lowest. In addition, students find innumerable ways to enjoy informal activities with their fellow students and outsiders, although the more isolated campuses make interaction with nonstudents rather problematic.

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