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First-Year Curriculum in Law Schools

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The first year of law school is designed to introduce law students to the analytical skills discussed here, which is referred to as "thinking like a lawyer." This is typically done in several broad conceptual courses that form the foundation for many of the advanced courses that may be taken in the second and third years of law school. In most law schools, all your first-year courses will be required. Even in law schools that permit an elective course in the first year, you probably will be limited to only one elective course. All the students in your required first-year courses will be first-year students like yourself (referred to as lLs in many law schools).

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1. CONTRACTS

The Contracts course covers the law of contract and promissory obligation under the common law rules of the various states. In some courses, the Uniform Commercial Code article on sales law is also covered. Topics in the Contracts course typically include:

Formation of contracts. At what point does a contract possess the legal authority to bind the parties to it? The Contracts course looks at the concepts of offer, acceptance, consideration, and revocation. Few law students have survived law school without paying homage to the various permutations of the dreaded "mailbox rule."

Legal validity and construction. A good contract will sufficiently define and delineate the rights and obligations of the parties to it. As such, examples of well-drafted contracts rarely find their way into Contracts casebooks. Moreover, the law has developed rules governing the inter-pretation of contracts when something does go wrong. These rules and doctrines include parol evidence, mistake, unconscionability, and changed circumstances.

Material breach vs. substantial performance. One party to a contract may sue another party to the contract if the other party has breached the contract. Much of contract law concerns how courts should determine when a breach occurs and when a contract has been satisfactorily per-formed.

Remedies. If one party breaches a contract, what is the other party's remedy? The course looks at the issues of damages and court-ordered performance.

2. CRIMINAL LAW

Criminal Law ("Crim Law") courses focus on the nature of the criminal justice system in modern America. Topics include:

Purposes and functions of the criminal process. How does the criminal justice system work? Who are the parties involved and what is the extent of their powers?

Justification of punishment. Why do we punish criminals? This is a question that most lay people take for granted, but a solid understanding of the criminal law cannot leave the question unanswered. Types of punishment and issues of sentencing also are addressed.

Establishment of guilt. Two of the most significant concepts in criminal law are the presumption of innocence and the "beyond a reasonable doubt" burden of proof. Most Criminal Law courses spend time considering the rationale and effect of these concepts.

Defining criminal conduct. What are the statutory requirements for establishing the commission of various crimes? Two important concepts, actus reus (a "bad act") and mens rea (a "vicious will"), are considered. Many courses apply these concepts through the study of the Model Penal Code, often with respect to specific crimes such as rape and homicide.

3. CRIMINAL PROCEDURE

The Criminal Procedure ("Crim Pro") course addresses the procedural aspects of the investigation and adjudication of criminal violations. Most Criminal Procedure courses focus on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments to the Constitution:

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Fourth amendment. The fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires authorities to have probable cause to obtain a search warrant. In examining whether these requirements have been satisfied, courts look to various doctrines and legal tests. If the amendment is violated, the seized evidence can be withheld from the jury under the "exclusionary rule."

Fifth Amendment. The fifth amendment is a laundry list of criminal procedural requirements. It requires a grand jury indictment in many cases, prohibits the suffering of double jeopardy (multiple punishments for the same offense), grants a privilege against self-incrimination, and prohibits the government from depriving an individual of "due process."

Sixth Amendment. The sixth amendment includes such rights as the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, the right to be informed of the nature of the accusation, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to assistance of legal counsel.

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4. LEGISLATION

While many first-year courses focus on common law (i.e., judge-made law), most aspects of modern life are now regulated by statutes passed by the Congress and the various state legislatures. Like a contract, statutes often require judicial interpretation to inform their meaning in a particular case. The Legislation course looks at the role of legislation and the legislative process in American law, the relationship between legislation and the common law, and the formulation of legislative policy. The course mainly focuses on methods of statutory interpretation and implementation.

5. LEGAL RESEARCH AND LEGAL WRITING

In addition to the substantive courses, in most law schools the first-year curriculum includes a course on legal research and legal writing. The legal research portion of the course introduces students to the materials and services available in the law library and teaches the research methods for using them, including electronic research. As a specialized body of knowledge, the law has its own publications and reference systems. As a result, you will be learning a method of research different from any you have used before. Strong research skills are essential to your success in law school and in the practice of law. This gives you an overview of the legal resource materials and research methods.

The legal writing portion of the course teaches the techniques for writing legal documents, such as memoranda and legal advocacy briefs. Just as legal research is different from other types of research, legal writing is different from many other forms of writing. Although briefs and other legal documents may be written in forceful and stirring language, most legal writing is a form of technical writing. The key emphases are on preciseness and conciseness. For example, in some other forms of writing, such as in a creative writing course; varying the words that are used to describe the same object or event is highly desired. In legal writing, however, using two different words to describe the same object or event creates potential confusion as the reader tries to determine whether a difference in meaning was intended by using the different words. Therefore, you must learn to master the unique rules of legal writing.

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