The Law Profs

Dear Law Prof,
I’m a 1L who has to sign up for classes for the fall of my 2L year and I just don’t know where to begin. I’m not yet sure what I want to do after law school. Are there any rules or guidelines that you usually give students in my position?
- Floundering in a Sea of Choices     

Dear Floundering,
We should begin by letting you know that there is no “one size fits all” advice for you, and, in fact, even reasonable law school professors differ in our advice. We do have a few basic thoughts on what you should consider.

First, check out your law school’s requirements for graduation and course enrollment. Most schools have some rules regarding upper level required classes. For instance, A.B.A. accreditation standards mandate all schools to require a course in professional responsibility. Many law schools also have a handful of additional upper-division required classes, such as Business Organizations, Criminal Procedure, and Evidence, as well as an array of offerings that can satisfy the Lawyering Skills requirement.

Many schools establish a limit of a certain number of credit hours that can be used for externships, clinics, or joint degree offerings from another unit. Some schools frame this differently as a limit of the number of credits that can be taken for other than in-class course hours, such as law journals, moot court, or clinics. There is actually an invitation hidden in what might be seen as just a limiting rule: schools may allow you to take up to a certain number of hours, say ten of your ninety hours, outside the walls of the law school in another appropriate grad level course, such as an Educational Administration, Executive M.B.A., or Public Administration class. If you are considering a career in representing start-up companies, for example, taking classes in entrepreneurship might be very useful. If you think you want to take a clinic, make sure you know what courses are required for enrollment.

Second, other than these rules, there is a lot of free play for you to schedule your own classes. It is good to have a longer term plan of what you think you might want to take to both prepare and credential yourself for the kind of work that you think you want to do. If you don’t know the direction in which you want to head, and even if you do, one general piece of advice is to take classes that are stepping stones as soon as you can. If you think that you might be interested in Intellectual Property, first take an I.P. Survey course rather than diving into a more specialized Trademark class. That way, if IP becomes your passion, you still have three more semesters in which to take classes. On the other hand, if you decide you no longer care about the difference between a patent and a copyright, then you have lots of time to explore other interests.

Try to do an initial, even if tentative, plan for both your 2L and 3L years (knowing that it might change). Most schools post online the courses typically offered each year. Think about when you are going to want heavier or lighter semesters. It may be easier to take more hours in your second year, which will lighten your third year load so that you can do more clinic work or have a part-time job; in this scenario, your 3L self will thank you for front-loading just a little. On the other hand, you may want to take a lighter load in the Fall 2L semester because you may be spending a significant amount of time job searching at that point. Which set of recommendations you follow will depend on your expectations about clinics, internships, job searches, and other plans. Take into account things like when a class is offered (is it offered every year or only every other year), who is teaching a class and whether you will enjoy that professor, how a class is tested (is it a multiple choice or essay exam or a paper course), and what day and time of day the class occurs. Map out what your week would look like if you take all of the courses you are considering.

A third general consideration is to vary your diet each semester.  Don’t load up all in one semester on multiple code courses (such as Federal Tax, Bankruptcy, Secured Transactions, and Commercial Transactions). You might also decide to take a course based solely on the professor, rather than your intrinsic interest in the subject matter.  In fact, be sure to add in one mind-expanding or fun course each semester (e.g., Famous Trials, Law & Economics, or Gender & Justice).

Fourth, make sure that you save courses for the 3L year that will keep you interested and engaged in learning and developing the skills that you will need for practice. It is easy to become a little jaded by the third year and to coast out of law school. If you let that happen, you lose a great learning opportunity. To prevent that from happening, make your third year different from the first two by taking courses that teach skills other than the analytical skills you learned in the classroom courses during your first two years. Such courses may include clinics, trial practice, negotiations, legal drafting, and internships with legal organizations outside the law school. By keeping your 3L diet fresh, you can continue to develop your legal skills all the way to graduation.

Finally, don’t just take our advice!  Current 2L and 3L students may be good sources of information about individual classes. They may be able to identify professors who are so engaging that you may wish to take their courses regardless of the course’s subject matter. Your law school deans’ office or registrar will also have helpful advice, and you can also approach professors.  Your Career Center might also provide some guidance on particular career paths.

The Law Profs

The law profs are:  Naomi Cahn (left) and Todd Peterson (center), GWU Law School, and Nancy Levit (right), UMKC School of Law.

Please send your questions to becomingalawyer@wolterskluwer.com with the subject line Dear Law Prof.

About the Author

Nancy Levit holds both a Curator’s Professorship and the Edward D. Ellison Professorship at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law School. She teaches Defamation & Privacy, Employment Discrimination, Gender & Justice, Jurisprudence, and Torts, and is the co-advisor to the UMKC Law Review. Professor Levit has been voted by the students as the Law School’s Outstanding Professor of the Year three times and she has received the Elmer Pierson Faculty Teaching Award three times as well, the N.T. Veatch Award for Distinguished Research and Creative Activity, the UMKC Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2011, and the Missouri Governor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She will be profiled in Professor Michael Schwartz’s book, What the Best Law Teachers Do, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2012. She is the author of The Gender Line: Men, Women, and the Law, and the co-author (with Richard Delgado and Robert L. Hayman, Jr.) of Jurisprudence—Classical and Contemporary, the co-author (with Robert R.M. Verchick) of Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer, and the co-author (with Douglas Linder) of The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. Her areas of expertise include family law, adoption law, and reproductive technology. She has written numerous law review articles on family law, feminist jurisprudence, and other subjects, and has co-authored several books, including, with June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families (OUP 2010). She has co-authored casebooks in family law and trusts and estates. She is a Senior Fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a member of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, and a board Member of the Donor Sibling Registry. Prior to joining the faculty at George Washington in 1993, Professor Cahn practiced with Hogan & Hartson in Washington, DC, and as a staff attorney with Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services. During college, she was a student teacher for high school students, and she received a Teaching Certificate.

Todd Peterson joined the Law School faculty in 1987. Earlier, he had been a partner at the Washington, D.C., firm of Ross, Dixon & Masback, where he specialized in commercial litigation. Professor Peterson also served as an attorney adviser in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is responsible for providing advice to the attorney general and White House on constitutional law issues. He began practice in the fields of administrative and commercial litigation at the D.C. firm of Crowell & Moring. Professor Peterson has served as a consultant to the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal and as co-chair of the D.C. Circuit Special Committee on Race and Ethnic Bias. From 1997 to 1999, Professor Peterson returned to the Office of Legal Counsel to serve as deputy assistant attorney general. Professor Peterson teaches civil procedure, federal courts, and separation of powers. He writes principally in the areas of separation of powers and the federal judicial system.
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