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Few of the Subjects Taught at Law School

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Criminal Law

There is little that is uplifting about studying the various degrees of murder or other crimes, especially when they may not make sense to your pre-law school notions of justice. For example, you may question why a person who plans for just a few hours to kill a violent person who previously provoked him should get a stiffer sentence than a person who simply goes berserk one day and slashes to death the little old lady down the street by stabbing her 1,000 times in a random fashion. But the law, in its dispassionate, reasoned fashion, says such is the case. Under the law, the mens rea (state of mind) involved in planning a murder is more culpable than that associated with a fit of rage or insanity, even though the actus reus (the act) in all homicide cases has the same end result.


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Much of the criminal law taught in law school is devoted to studying the different types of murder (premeditated, depraved-heart, felony murder, etc.). Depending on the professor's individual predilections, less morbid crimes such as burglary, embezzlement, theft, robbery, arson, assault, mayhem, and kidnapping may take the spotlight or may scarcely be touched upon. A balanced approach will be employed if you are lucky enough to have a criminal law professor who realizes that some students still actually go into this area of practice and that all lawyers need a basic grounding in criminal law, if for no other reason than to understand just how delicate and tenuous the basic nature of our guarantees of personal liberty can be.

Civil Procedure

This class is about judicial power and how it is invoked in the cause of justice. Here the student will learn how certain courts obtain power, or jurisdiction, over individuals and organizations (personal jurisdiction); civil procedure class also addresses the types of issues various courts are competent to decide (subject matter jurisdiction). More mundane matters covered by this class include the effects of a court's judgments and orders on subsequent lawsuits (res judicata or collateral estoppel). The course also explores the technical and highly complex rules that must be followed to properly bring cases before a court; typical forms of investigating facts, or discover)' (for example, depositions, document requests, and interrogatories); and other selected rules of state and federal procedure, such as those governing class actions (lawsuits where large numbers of individuals can benefit from or be bound by a judgment even though they are not actually named parties to the lawsuit).

Because of its initially confusing terminology and its rather dry and technical nature, civil procedure often causes a lot of trouble for first-year law students. Cognizant of this fact, some schools defer teaching the class until the second year, when the more mature students' greater acclimation to the legal environment allows them to more readily absorb the dry and dense maze of procedural and jurisdictional rules.

Additionally, some schools have begun integrating practical aspects of practicing law into the civil procedure course. These aspects include activities like interviewing "clients" and deposing "witnesses."

Constitutional Law

Because the subject matter of constitutional law is so vast, it is usually covered in two or three courses, one of which may be taken during the first year of study. Major aspects of this area of legal study include the First Amendment (freedom of speech and association), the Fourth Amendment (prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures), the Fifth Amendment (right to due process and prohibition against involuntary self-incrimination), the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection), and the Commerce Clause, which gives the federal government its enormous power to regulate just about whatever activity it wants.

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Constitutional law classes tend to generate lively and entertaining debate among both students and professors. This area of study brings to the forefront such controversial issues as the right to abortion and the constitutional safeguards afforded those accused of crimes in this country (the infamous media-designated "technicalities"), such as the rule excluding evidence obtained by illegal searches.

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Legal Research and Writing

With regard to perceived importance, this is probably the most underrated first-year course. However, in terms of helping you write legal memoranda and briefs during your summer legal jobs and future employment, this is the most important class you will take. In this class, you will learn the fundamentals or searching for the law, skills that you will employ throughout your legal career. The law is found in the U.S. Constitution (the "Supreme Law" of our country), treaties, federal statutes (passed by Congress), state constitutions (supreme within the sphere of state law), state statutes (passed by state legislatures), the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (judicially made rules governing civil practice in federal courts), state court rules (statewide and local), local ordinances, published federal and state case decisions (containing the "common law," that is, judge-made law in non-statutory areas), and various other more obscure hiding places.

The belief held by many laypersons that any attorney knows the law "off the top of his head" is wrong. While many skilled practitioners do know a lot of law (or, more accurately, are readily familiar with its general substance and where to find it), especially in the areas they specialize in, a simple tour of a decent law library would easily demonstrate that no one could memorize even a fraction of the written law in this country. As a lawyer, you must know how to search for the law because it is too complex, massive, and ever-changing to commit it all to memory. Teaching you how to find the applicable law comprises the research portion of your legal research and writing course. You will learn to conduct legal research the "old-fashioned" way by finding and reading written texts and also by using the computer data base systems of LEXIS and WestLaw.

Aside from teaching basic research skills, a research and writing class should also impart the basic tenets of legal writing. Generally, a modern lawyer is only as effective as the words and arguments she can put in her briefs.

Unfortunately, legal research and writing classes are often taught by people barely out of law school themselves (and sometimes by second-or third-year assistants who are not yet out of law school). Although teaching these important classes is difficult and very time-consuming, the job of legal research and writing instructor is invariably at the very low end of law school teaching positions both in terms of prestige and remuneration.

To make matters worse, many law schools (foolishly, in our view) do not give standard letter grades for this class. Consequently, many first-year law students tend to discount the importance of this class and pay only minimum attention to its subject matter. This is a serious mistake that has recently been manifesting itself in complaints from top law firms that their young recruits lack even the most basic research skills. Put simply, you cannot know or use the law if you cannot find it. To find it, you need to be familiar with the nature and location of the law's sources. Furthermore, writing ability is equally important, since even if you can find the law and learn it, you will be unable to use it effectively if you are incapable of writing well.

If you do not take your legal research and writing class seriously, you may well end up embarrassing yourself at your first legal job when you are asked (as you no doubt will be) to research a legal issue of some import to your employer. This type of embarrassment is something most aspiring lawyers (and their employers) want to avoid. Hence, a good rule of thumb for this class is to spend no less time proportionately on it than on any other class you are taking your first year. The hours spent laying a sound research and writing foundation will pay significant dividends on your initial investment of time.

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