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First-Year Courses in Law Schools

published September 07, 2013

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At most law schools, the first-year curriculum includes courses in the following broad conceptual subjects: civil procedure, constitutional law, con-tracts, criminal law, property, and torts. In some schools, criminal procedure or legislation may be added to that list, and one or more of the subjects may be moved to a later year. In addition, many law schools include an introduction to law course that covers a variety of subjects to introduce students to the legal process.

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The specific content of each of the broad substantive courses varies depending on the casebook used and the specific subjects in which the professor is most interested and knowledgeable. For example, a course in property law might or might not include a unit on the law concerning possession of wild animals to introduce students to the concepts of possession and ownership. The course may or may not include historical materials on the different estates in land to give students a conceptual grounding in the concepts of ownership in our modern property law. Today, most property courses include a variety of topics relating to housing issues, such as landlord and tenant law, federal housing regulation, and zoning. Most first-year property courses also will introduce students to the basics of modern real property conveyancing and financing law. The emphasis in the course will vary greatly, however, depending on the professor and on the casebook used.

Recognizing that the specific first-year course content will vary from professor to professor, the following are topics that may be covered in the most common first-year courses. Because of time constraints, it is unlikely that any one course would cover all of the topics identified for that course.

Civil Procedure ("Civ Pro") provides an overview of the civil litigation system and the procedural requirements of filing and maintaining civil lawsuits (or, in popular lawyerly parlance, "actions"). The course usually centers upon the study of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which many state courts have adopted as well. Note that the course is devoted to civil litigation, not criminal prosecution, which is dealt with in other courses. Common civil procedure topics include:

Jurisdiction. Does a particular court have the power to issue binding judgments over a particular matter? This will depend on the type of claim, the parties (or property) involved, and the constitutional or statutory power of the court hearing the case. Federal and state courts operate under different rules and look at different factors in determining whether jurisdiction in a given case is proper.

Choice of law. Depending on the subject of the lawsuit and the location of the pertinent parties and occurrences, courts often must decide a case based on the applicable substantive law of another jurisdiction. That is, a court in New York may find itself looking at the rulings of a court in Oregon to decide the proper outcome of a case. Many civil procedure courses address how a court should determine the appropriate law to apply.

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Pleadings, claims, and defenses. All jurisdictions have procedural rules governing the filing of lawsuits, responding to lawsuits, filing countersuits, and the like. Civil procedure covers these rules.

Discovery. Discovery is the fact-finding process that the parties to a lawsuit go through before a case goes to trial. Many procedural rules govern how adversaries may obtain information from one another to prepare for trial. This may include scheduling expert examinations, taking depositions, and developing and responding to interrogatories.

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Motions. The rules of civil procedure allow for lawyers to make motions of many kinds, such as motions to dismiss a case for some procedural flaw (such as improper jurisdiction), motions to strike language from the record, motions to dismiss based upon an insufficient claim, and summary judgment motions. For a motion to be successful, it must satisfy certain criteria specific to that motion.

Res judicata and collateral estoppel. As a law student, you cannot avoid learning a bit of Latin to impress (or disgust) your friends, and civil procedure is no exception. The law of claim preclusion {res judicata) and issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) considers what effect prior decisions have on current lawsuits. For instance, if a court finds in one trial that Charlie Truckdriver was negligent when he collided with Dawn Driver, does it follow that he was negligent with respect to Patty Passenger, who was riding with Dawn at the time? The issues become infinitely more complex than this, but you get the idea.

Constitutional Law ("Con Law") provides an introduction to the United States Constitution and its delegation of rights and obligations among the states, citizens, and branches of federal govern-ment. Because of the doctrine of judicial review, the Supreme Court of the United States has long been the final arbiter on the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution. As a result, the course focuses primarily on the Constitution and the Supreme Court cases interpreting it. Common topics include:

Judicial review. Nowhere in the Constitution itself does it say who has the last word on constitutional issues. In the important constitutional case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established that "it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." The Constitutional Law course examines the desirability, scope, and effect of this decision and its implications for our system of government.

Procedural aspects of constitutional litigation. As with any lawsuit, constitutional claims must be included in an actual case or controversy between adverse parties. The parties must have legal "standing" to assert a claim, the claim must be "ripe" (actually existing and not merely anticipatory), and the claim cannot be "moot" (no longer an issue because of subsequent events).

Government structure. Federalism, intergovernmental relations, and separation of powers issues often arise in conflicts between states, between a state and the federal government, or between branches of the federal government. How such claims are resolved is a matter for Supreme Court consideration.

Individual rights and limitations on government power. To what extent does, the Constitution protect the rights of the citizens? The bulk of most Constitutional Law courses focuses on this issue as it applies to economic and property claims, equality under the law, personal liberties, and freedom of speech and of religion.

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