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Typical Compulsory Courses at Law School

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Nearly all law schools traditionally require the following courses:
  • Civil Procedure - focuses on the rules that structure federal and state civil litigation.
  • Constitutional Law - provides a general introduction to the U.S. Constitution's allocation of power among the branches of the federal government and to the limitations on the substantive powers of the government.
  • Contracts - explores the nature and enforceability of promises and bargains, and the remedies available for nonperformance.
  • Criminal Law - examines the general principles of criminal liability, the rules for enforcing punishment against those accused of criminal acts, and the rights guaranteed to those charged with crimes.
  • Property - examines the philosophical and economic origins of property rights, the rules that govern the acquisition and transfer of property rights, and private and public means of regulation.
  • Torts - explores the policies and rules of the private law system that provide compensation for injuries or damage to persons and property.
  • Legal Research and Writing - introduces students to legal discourse through problem analysis, legal research, writing, oral skills, and legal citation. Students are introduced to the contexts for and processes involved in legal problem-solving and communication.

Teaching Methods

Case Method

Most courses are taught via the case method in the first year of law school. (Some courses will be taught this way in the second and third years, whereas others will be taught via lecture or clinic.) Your studying for these courses will consist almost exclusively of a series of appellate cases, some long, some short.

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There will be no text—no book that gives an overview of the field and highlights what is most important within it. Instead, you will be expected to piece together the nature and structure of the field by reading a series of cases that focus on one legal point (or occasionally two). These points will not be aggregated for you. Thus, you must learn how to see the forest for the trees. The accompanying classroom method requires substantial student participation. Instead of sitting back and taking notes on what the professor says, as you probably did in college, you will need to be alert to the direction the professor is taking. She will call upon students to answer highly specific questions about the required reading; she may also ask about the economic, political, societal, or other significance of the rules under discussion. If this is an aggressive attempt to grill students, it will be termed the "Socratic Method."

The Socratic Method is a misnomer when used in this context. Socrates asked his students questions to get them to understand and recognize the truths that they already had in their minds; inherent truths, if you will. The law school version of this has been distorted out of all recognition, focusing on not-yet-learned concepts rather than inherent truths. In the past, professors grilled students mercilessly on new or foreign concepts.

There are still some unreformed Socratic Method types who "cold call" students—call on students who have not raised their hands or otherwise volunteered to answer—and seemingly delight in making them squirm. Most professors, however, have toned this down. The most common form of the still-feared Socratic Method involves professors warning a few students that during an upcoming class, they can expect to be called on, giving them plenty of advance notice (and incentive) to prepare the assigned cases well.

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The form of the questions has not changed much over the years. The first student called upon regarding a given case is likely to be asked to give an overview of it: to state the court, parties, facts, issues, holding, and rationale behind a case. The follow-up questions may start by asking about the specifics of this case, but will soon venture afield into hypothetical matters. The professor will twist the facts of the case to determine what causes you to believe, for instance, that the court was right in its decision. "If the bus had not contained a bunch of convicts being taken away for execution but instead a group of nuns, would you still claim that the driver who rammed into it, killing three, should not be held liable?" "What if the driver was drunk at the time?" "What if the driver had not had a driver's license?" And so on.

One of the differences between this and the college-style lecture courses to which you are probably accustomed is that it is hard to take useful notes in such a class. Learning what is relevant for mastering the subject—and what will help you to ace the exam—is part of the first-year education process.


Many second- and third-year classes resemble the traditional lecture classes familiar to any American college student. (The general rule is that subjects depending more upon case law than statute are likely to be taught by the case method, whereas so-called statutory courses are more likely to be taught in a lecture format.) Lecture classes are less burdensome than case method courses in so far as there is no fear that the professor will call upon a student to grill him. Note-taking is also easier than in the case method classes, where one needs to be following every little nuance to be ready to answer highly specific questions. Instead, one can listen for major points and note them down, without fearing that he has missed the last thing said while writing a note, placing him in jeopardy.

Clinical Studies

The relatively recent utilization of clinical courses within law school curricula is an attempt to bridge the gap between theoretical instruction and the everyday work of lawyers. As "situation-based" teaching, clinical courses place students in actual or simulated circumstances that require them to address a client's problems.

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Another, unspoken goal is to keep students involved in school and their classes through graduation. Most students in regular law classes have become bored and complacent by sometime in their second years; the change of pace offered by clinical education is one means of combating the problem.

The format of schools' clinical programs varies widely. Often, schools will have both "in-house" clinical programs and externship opportunities. The in-house clinics are more likely to be heavily supervised by faculty and administered in conjunction with a specific course. Clinical facilities centered outside

the confines of the campus are supervised by staff attorneys and generally give students a bit more authority. Schools also offer "field placement programs," in which students receive academic credit for working in public interest organizations or governmental agencies under the supervision of a practicing attorney.


Top JD programs demand a remarkable amount of work. During the first year of a program (and particularly the first semester), the demands are especially great. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the schools are trying to teach critically important areas of law, plus an understanding of legal research and writing. There is a large amount to learn in such a short time, so the workload is inevitably high. (The second and third years are less intense, both because students have learned how to play the law school "game" and because they are taking elective courses suited to their interests and strengths.)

Another important reason for the time pressure is that the workload of a practicing attorney can be grueling. The JD program is structured to simulate that workload, so that students can be prepared for it later on. The excessive amount of work forces students to learn how to manage their time, one of the key skills a lawyer must acquire. Thus, a student will almost certainly have to learn to prioritize—to determine how to learn in the most efficient way.

So how demanding are these programs? They are so demanding that it is more appropriate to describe the amount of time a typical student is working, rather than the other way around. Unmarried students typically take off one or two evenings per week, enough time each day for a physical activity, plus the occasional hour or two to relax. Married students generally spend a bit more time away from their books, but not a lot. Obviously even an understanding spouse and family are likely to be put out by this sort of schedule.

Your Workload Is Up To You

For the average student, the first three semesters involve much more effort than the last three. Sometime during the middle of the second year, the average student opts out of the game—emotionally and academically. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalization. Those who are trying to make Order of the Coif, given to the top 10 percent of the class, may well keep pushing for top grades. The same is true for those whose employment fate will not be determined until (or after) the end of law school. Those who wish to teach law at a leading law school, for example, are likely to be given their first jobs elsewhere (perhaps clerking for a federal judge, working in a government agency, or teaching at a lesser law school). When it comes time for them to try to scale the heights of a top-tier law school, their law grades for each year of school are likely to be examined closely.

Students are in charge of their fate, of course, and can choose (within some limits) how much to study, but most do not recognize this until after the fact.


The difference between college and law school is nowhere more marked than in the grading. Most college courses involve at least a mid-term and a final exam; some involve a mid-term, a final, and a paper. Other courses involve multiple papers, multiple exams, or both. In nearly all first-year law school courses, however, the grade is based solely upon the single end-of-term exam. This exam is typically three or four hours long; it requires that you analyze a hypothetical case (or two or three) or a recently decided "real" case. Despite the nerve-wracking aspects of preparing for class each day, class participation is seldom graded. (Consequently, it is not worth torturing yourself over classroom performance. It is useful to impress fellow students and professors, but the most important means of impressing people is through your grades.)

Basing the entire grade upon one exam results in a great deal of anxiety for law school students. This is particularly true during the first year, of course, before students have adjusted to taking such exams, learned to study for them, and gained confidence that they will survive them.

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