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If You Know Where You Want to Practice Law

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Contrary to what you may have heard, you aren't required to study law in the state in which you will practice. If you graduate from any ABA-accredited law school, you are authorized to take the bar exam in any state. Nor do you need to go to a local law school to learn the idiosyncrasies of local law. True, you will have to know local law to pass the bar exam. But few law schools, even the ones at the bottom of the status rankings, spend much time on local law anymore. They are required to follow the ABA-prescribed national curriculum and they emphasize legal concepts that are useful everywhere. After you graduate from law school, you'll get a job, relocate if necessary, begin work at your new firm, and then take a cram course in local law offered by a local proprietary school. You'll take the cram course even if you've gone to a local law school. Then you'll take the local bar exam.

If You Know Where You Want to Practice Law



Still, there are some advantages to studying law in the state in which you will practice. Simply by living in a community you'll learn a lot about its geography, history, and peculiar local customs. This knowledge will be useful when you begin practice. Although top law firms tend to recruit nationally, most of the legal employers in a given city recruit only locally. Attending a local school offers a way in to the local status ladder and old-boy networks. The University of Texas, for example, has traditionally educated the Texas establishment that tends to dominate the state's commercial and political life. If you're sure that you want a conventional business or real estate practice in Chicago, you could do worse than to attend De Paul law school, the alma mater of many of that city's most powerful business and political leaders. Temple University Law School has played a similar role in the legal life of Philadelphia.

If You Don't Know Where You Want to Live

If you aren't sure where you want to live and practice, don't despair. One strategy is to pick schools in growing, dynamic parts of the country. Although business lawyers aren't as dependent on the prosperity of their communities as, say, engineers (because lawyers can always do bankruptcies and liquidations when the economy turns bad), there are always more-and better-opportunities in a growing region than in a declining one.

Alternatively, you can pick an area where you feel comfortable living. If your hobby is sailing, you'll want to be near water; if it's skiing, near snow and mountains. You probably won't get much chance to ski or sail while you're going to law school, but it might be nice to have the option. And you increase the likelihood that you'll be able to live there after you graduate.

Finally, you can choose a location to maximize your chance of admission. Many state law schools are still legally required to give preference to residents of their states. But these law schools also offer a substantial financial saving; consequently, they attract so many in-state resident applicants that they're in a position to be very selective. If you're a marginal applicant, you probably won't get much benefit from your resident status. If you come from a less-populated part of the country and can afford a private law school, you're more attractive to regional and local schools out of your area that are seeking geographic diversity.

Whatever you do, you aren't making a lifetime commitment. You can always leave a city or region when you graduate from law school. If you can't find anything in this discussion that seems important to you, you may as well indulge your wanderlust.

Specialized Programs

A specialized program, sometimes called a concentration or emphasis, is a group of related courses, sometimes coupled with internships, clinical activities, or travel-all designed to prepare you for some specialized area of legal practice.

Until quite recently, there was no such thing as a specialized program. Legal education was directed at teaching students to "think like lawyers," on the assumption that knowing a certain method would prepare a lawyer to untangle any legal subject or case. As a result, all law students used to get the same education. There were no formal majors, as in undergraduate schools, and there were no programs to train specialists, like those in medical education. Many law schools allowed no elective courses at all except in the senior year, when law students were permitted to choose seminars in complex subjects like taxation.

However, legal practice has become specialized. Lawyers are increasingly involved in arcane and previously remote areas like sports and entertainment. They're extending the profession internationally, by working for multinational corporations. And they have to deal with increasingly complex statutes, like the Environmental Protection Act or the Tax Code. The amount of specialized information that a sports or environmental or tax lawyer must know in order to do his or her job has increased enormously.

As a result, law schools have begun to accept the existence of specialized areas within the law. There is still no such thing as a law school major and all law students are required to take the same core of traditional courses heavily oriented toward conventional property and commercial law. But beyond that core, schools often offer groups of courses in specialized fields.

If you aspire to have a traditional business or litigation career, or if you already know what your niche will be in life, you don't need to worry about a specialty. You can ignore this criterion. But if you know that you want to enter a particular specialty-like entertainment law or environmental protection law-you should attend a law school that is strong in that field. Doing so will help ground you in your subject and should make you more attractive to the specialized law firms (or the government bodies or the multinational corporations) that you will want to join.

Many law schools list their specialized programs in the Official Guide. But for details, you'll have to read catalogs. You should also look at the list of journals that the law school publishes, as well as at the list of student associations. University of Houston Law Center has organizations of students interested in aeronautics and space law, health law, and admiralty, among others. You can also ask law school reps. Your prelaw advisor may have lists of schools offering some common specialties. These can quickly become dated, however.

Some programs are better than others. At a minimum, a law school should offer courses taught by specialized faculty members. At least some of the specialists should be full-time faculty, as opposed to part-timers (or "adjuncts"); the full-timers are around more and may be more involved in law school activities. But there should be some adjuncts. They are practicing lawyers and will bring their up-to-date experience into the classroom. If appropriate, there should be interdisciplinary coursework. A program in law and economics, for example, should provide courses taught (or team-taught) by economists as well as courses taught by lawyers. Some of the courses should be seminars. Beyond that, a program should offer appropriate clinical experience, contact with professionals working in the specialty, student activities, and library resources. A definite plus for any specialized program is a student-edited scholarly journal.

When you visit the campus, ask to speak to students specializing in the field that interests you. Ask them about their activities. There should be contact among the students in a given specialty beyond classroom activities. If you speak to a young lawyer working in a specialty, ask her if she feels that her school adequately prepared her for the work she is now doing. And always ask law school reps about the placement rates for recent specialized graduates. A good placement service is an important part of any specialized program-and often the hardest part to get useful information on.

If you don't know what kind of specialty you want to go into, don't despair. Because all first year law school students are required to take the same courses, you don't have to commit yourself to a specialty until the second year. The best thing to do is to go to a large law school that offers many specialties, and keep your eyes and ears open.

Unlike a specialized program, which is part of a law school curriculum, a joint degree program is a joint venture. You will study in the law school as well as in another graduate college, usually one that is part of the law school's parent university, and you will work toward a law degree and a second advanced degree at the same time. The second degree is sometimes a Ph.D. or another professional degree. Most commonly it is an MPA, for people who want to go into public administration, or an MBA, for people who want to work as lawyers for large corporations. But other joint degree programs exist, and some are quite exotic. Duke University offers a degree in forestry, and the University of Illinois offers one in veterinary medicine.

In joint degree programs you will study law and other subjects either simultaneously or on an alternating basis. The program will take longer than three years to complete, most often four or five years. But the joint program is designed to take less time than pursuing the two degrees separately.
Temple University

    


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