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How Law Students Must Choose Second- and Third-Year Courses

published July 16, 2013

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Generally, your courses will be assigned for you in the first year of law school. However, you will have much greater flexibility in choosing your courses for the second and third years. Though there will be a few required courses and an overall number of credits needed for graduation, what you study in your second and third years will be largely up to you.

Core Courses

We strongly recommend that you take the traditional core courses that were not part of the first-year curriculum at your law school. Definitely included in this group are the subjects covered on the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The MBE is part of the bar exam for virtually every jurisdiction in the U.S. It is a six-hour, multiple-choice test covering six subjects: contracts, constitutional law, criminal law and criminal procedure, property, evidence, and torts.

Other core courses are corporations (or business associations), civil procedure, federal courts, remedies, probate (or wills and trusts), and professional responsibility (or ethics). Professional responsibility is part of every jurisdictions bar exam, and a majority of states require taking the separate Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The MPRE is a 50-question, multiple-choice test given three times a year, not coinciding with the main bar exam.

In creating your own list of core courses, you would be well-advised to determine the subjects covered on the bar exam of the state in which you desire to practice. If that state tests a subject not listed previously, consider it to be a core course for you. There is considerable variation from state to state of subjects covered on the bar exam.

Obviously, one reason for taking core courses is to increase the probability that you will pass the bar exam. It is possible to learn a subject well enough to pass the bar exam from a bar review course alone. However, it is much easier if you already have a working knowledge of the subject; then the bar review course functions as a true review.

Another reason for taking core courses is that well-educated lawyers are conversant with these areas of the law. In real life, these subject areas overlap and interrelate with each other. Possessing a general knowledge of these areas gives you, in the legal field, what E. D. Hirsch refers to in a more general sense as cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is a collectively shared body of knowledge, such that communication between members of that culture is enhanced and facilitated by the ability to immediately grasp a particular principle someone else refers to, and to properly understand allusions and analogies. For example, if a judge makes a witty allusion to the rule against perpetuities during oral argument and you merely stare dumbfounded at her, you may not lose the motion but you-will have lost effectiveness and stature.

In addition to core courses, there are other courses that should be seriously considered for inclusion in your second- and third-year curricula. These include taxation, administrative law, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), and bankruptcy. The UCC in particular has some overlap with the contracts subject on the MBE. However, these subjects are also important for post-bar exam life because their rules and principles can have an impact on many other areas of law. For example, there are significant tax consequences to many decisions in "unrelated" areas of the law.

Beyond these recommendations, your choices should be guided by your personal preferences. You may decide to emphasize a particular area in which you think you might be interested in practicing, such as taxation, environmental law, public interest law, or international law. This emphasis can be a positive factor when you begin interviewing for legal jobs, and even if you ultimately decide to avoid that practice area, you will have added intellectual breadth to your study of the law.

Clinical and Seminar Courses

In addition to traditional classes, most law schools offer clinical courses. These courses are designed to more closely approximate the actual practice of law than are traditional law school courses. Recall that the traditional law school class essentially entails attempting to derive black letter legal principles from case-analysis and question-and-answer sessions conducted by your professors. Clinical courses, on the other hand, give the students hands-on experience in discovery or trial practice. In these classes, you actually get to draft and answer interrogatories, conduct cross-examination of a witness, or engage in similar activities.

Clinical courses can be very valuable depending on the quality of the instructors. You should talk to other students who have taken a clinical course to evaluate the probable quality of the course before signing up for it. A good course can impart insights you might otherwise not gain in five years of practice. Alternatively, it might simply be a less intellectually challenging way of filling a spot on your course schedule.

There will also be a number of seminar-type courses offered. Compared with traditional law school courses, seminar courses tend to involve much smaller numbers of students, closer relations with the professor, more free-flowing discussion of the subject matter, and grading based on class participation and written papers as opposed to examination scores. The subject matter of seminar courses also tends to be specialized. If the seminar format appeals to you and you find the subject matter offered of interest, a seminar course may be a useful and rewarding addition to your course schedule.

Finally, some students select second- and third-year courses based on the particular professor teaching the course. Although rare, some professors are so bad they should be avoided, and you may want to delay taking a desired course in order to get a different professor. At the other end of the spectrum, a professor may be so wonderful that students sign up for his course even if they have no independent desire to study the subject matter. Generally, however, the professor should not be a predominating factor in choosing courses.

What to Look for in Your Courses

Second- and third-year courses differ from first-year courses. Your professors will assume that you have adapted to law school and therefore will expect more from you. The amount of material you will be expected to cover will be much greater because it will be assumed that you are a more efficient learner. At the same time, much of the anxiety associated with the first year will have dissipated. The pressure to get good grades will have usually lessened, and students will not feel the same need to demonstrate their interest in class.

Selecting courses you have an interest in helps combat the post-first-year problems of being overworked and bored. If you find the material interesting, it is easier to read and learn it, and it is (rather obviously) easier to remain interested and engaged during class.

Your overall course load should be balanced and workable. Do not overload your schedule, either on an overall basis or on a daily basis. Do not take too many difficult courses or courses requiring a great deal of work during the same semester or quarter. Pay attention to the dates of the final exams for each of your proposed classes to avoid conflicts or back-to-back exams. Most schools allow students to drop and add classes during the first week or so of class; this will permit you to make some last-minute adjustments to your schedule.

Finally, be aware that many courses have limited enrollments, so you should submit your requested course schedule as soon as possible after the law school office begins accepting them. This obviously increases your chances of getting the courses you want. Additionally, if a course you strongly desire to take is always overenrolled, request it at the first opportunity. If you wait until the last semester or quarter of your third year, you might miss the opportunity to take it.

During your second and third years, you largely control your courses. You should select courses to fulfill three goals. The first goal is to prepare for the bar exam. The second is to become well-educated in the major or traditional areas of the law. The third is to maintain your personal interest in law school. Keeping these goals in mind when selecting second- and third-year courses should increase both your success in and enjoyment of law school.

You should view having the freedom to choose your own courses as an opportunity to enhance the mental stimulation and academic challenge inherently offered by law school. Do not lose sight of the fact that the study of law, when approached with the right attitude, can be enjoyable and intellectually satisfying.

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