Specialized Programs in Law Schools

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Specialized Programs in Law Schools
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.

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Until quite recently, these programs didn't exist. Legal education used to be 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 schools. 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 highly specialized. Lawyers are increasingly becoming involved in arcane and previously remote areas like intellectual property law. They're extending the profession internationally, by working for multinational corporations. And they're having to deal with increasingly complex statutes, like the Environmental Protection Act or the Tax Code. The amount of specialized information that sports or environmental or tax lawyers must know in order to do their jobs has increased enormously.

As a result, law schools are beginning 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 that are heavily oriented toward conventional property and commercial law. But beyond that core, schools now often offer groups of courses in specialized fields.

If you expect 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 eventually make you more attractive to the specialized law firms (or government bodies or multinational corporations) that you will want to join.

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Not every law school offers every specialty. You'll have to do some research to find out which schools have the specialty you want. Some specialties are common. For example, about 60 law schools have demonstrated strong offerings in international law, which largely deals with the legal environment of multinational corporations. Other specialties are extremely rare, offered by only a few schools. St. John's Law School, for example, is known for its pioneering program in sports law. State law schools tend to offer specialties useful in the state itself, both as a community service and also because the specialized teachers and resources are easily available. Thus, North Dakota emphasizes agricultural law, and Oklahoma offers courses in oil and natural gas law.

Many law schools list their specialized programs in the Official Guide. But you'll have to read catalogs for details. You should also look at the list of journals that the law school publishes and 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 adviser may have lists of schools offering some common specialties. These lists go rapidly out of date, though.

Some programs are better than others. At minimum, a law school should offer courses taught by specialized faculty members. At least some of the specialists should be full-time permanent faculty, as opposed to "adjuncts" who are part-timers or temporaries. The full-timers are around their offices more often, and may be more involved in law school activities. But there should be some courses taught by adjuncts, also. Adjuncts are usually practicing lawyers and bring their valuable up-to-date experience into the classroom. If appropriate, there should be interdisciplinary coursework. A program in law and economics, for example, should comprise 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, you should ask to speak to students specializing in the field you're interested in. Ask them about their activities. There should be contact among the students in a given specialty outside of the classroom. If you speak to young lawyers working in a specialty, ask them if they feel that their schools adequately prepared them for the work they are 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 the hardest part to get useful information on).

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If you don't know yet what kind of specialty you want to go into, don't despair. Because all law school freshmen have 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.

University of Houston Law Center


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