Do not pick interesting, pick easy: Course selection in law school

Sometime towards the end of your first year, you will once again be given a modicum of choice in your class schedule as you choose what to enroll in for second year. There will still be required classes you have to shoehorn into your schedule, but at least now you can choose to shoehorn them in at 2 in the afternoon as opposed to 7:30 in the morning. At this point, if your law school is anything like mine, there will be a required meeting where the Academic Dean will pontificate about what classes they think you should take. Don’t listen. Not even a little.

There is a myth propagated by everyone in academia. They themselves do not ever put stock in it, but they pay it lipservice at every turn. It is the myth of the well-rounded student. A few centuries ago when you went to college, you studied classics, history and philosophy, and math. A so called “classical education” which studied the Big 3 (grammar, logic, rhetoric). Then, slowly, as more universities sprang up you started seeing specialization. One university would be known for engineering, one would be known for the arts, another for business. People became attracted to those universities for that one facet… Think of Perdue, there is absolutely no reason to go there unless you are going for engineering. None. The majority of the money in the university gets poured into one department. A professor once told me he enjoyed reading the Fall course catalog at his university to see the ‘sexy classes’. You see, each year’s departmental funding by the university was determined based on Fall enrollment into that department’s various courses. So in the fall you saw courses like “the history of video games”, “Erotic literature: The Marquis de Sade to 50 Shades of Grey”, or… any of these. You also saw the gut courses which got rid of a required class like the so called ‘Rocks for Jocks’ class of Geology 101 which counted as your singular required science credit that every single person who had no science ability took.

I have never had one person give me any credence for a single class I took in college or law school. Employers ask for transcripts so they can see your class standing, they could care less if every single one of your classes was “The legal underpinnings and principles of basket-weaving”. So why should you? When you look at the courses offered, recognize that no one else will ever bother looking at what you took. Instead, choose based on what you know you are better at than most of the people around you. Additionally, remember… and I will reiterate… REMEMBER… Law is not an academic field. It is a practical field. A JD is a professional degree; the concept being that you will be vaguely prepared for the  practical education you will get in law once (if?) you are employed. An except from Wikipedia on the subject...

  • As a professional doctorate, the Juris Doctor is a degree that prepares the recipient to enter the law profession (as does the M.D. in the medical profession). While the J.D. is the sole degree necessary to become a professor of law or to obtain a license to practice law, it (like the M.D.) is not a “research degree”. Research degrees in the study of law include the Master of Laws (LL.M.), which ordinarily requires the J.D. or LL.B. as a prerequisite, and the Doctor of the Science of Law (S.J.D./J.S.D.), which ordinarily requires the LL.M. as a prerequisite. However, the American Bar Association has issued a Council Statementadvising that the J.D. be considered as being equivalent to the Ph.D. for educational employment purposes. Accordingly, while most law professors are required to conduct original writing and research in order to be awarded tenure, most only have a J.D. The United States Department of Education and the National Science Foundation do not include the J.D. or other professional doctorates among the degrees that are equivalent to research doctorates.

In short… not a whole lot you learn in law school is directly applicable to actual practice of law. In theory, law schools have been trying to fix this disconnect, in fact, they are still doing a crappy job (yes… even yours). So what am I trying to say? The takeaway is that your specific classes in law school by and large are not going to effect any decision an employer makes when looking at your resume. Instead they want to see GPA / class rank.

So what is that party line you are going to hear?

  1. You’re going to be be told to take Admin Law (which has no practical value), since you already are required to take Civ Pro and Con Law, this is an applied version of both together with damn little relevance to real legal work. Its basically the ins and outs of rulemaking in government agencies by people who aren’t lawyers, making arbitrary requirements for lots of other people who aren’t lawyers. File 3 copies of this; That’s the rule, don’t ask why… it just is.
  2. Everyone says take Appellate Practice, don’t. Every gunner in your class will take it, and as someone who argued in front of real appellate courts in my 3rd year, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing. It will only serve as a grade dump as you fight to convince the professor (who likely has very little if any real appellate experience) that your polished papers have a nicer font and margins than anyone else. Basic trial advocacy skills and solid brief writing will serve you 10,000% better in an Appellate Court than whatever your professor is trying to teach you.
  3. Constitutional Law II, or Con Law lecture applied to (death penalty, guns, etc etc). You would like to think you will someday use this wonderful high-concept rhetoric in defense of your client. You won’t. That’s not to say you don’t throw in a constitutional argument into briefs. Of course you do, “everything here violates the 4th your honor”. But the likelihood of getting it to stick is near to negligible, and it approaches the throw away Civ Pro arguments you also put in a brief hoping the judge wants to be lazy and dismiss on a technicality so they don’t have to work out a complex legal answer. Usually, when you win with one of these arguments you are shocked they bought it, and end up wistfully thinking how you would prefer they had actually decided on the merits instead.
  4. Any “pass the bar” sort of class. Sorry.. Face it. I know you are broke, but everyone just accepts that you are going to have to take BarBri to teach you what you need to know. No law school class teaches you your state specific law. It is all a general federal-ish mish-mash that at times teaches you comparative / conflict of law. To know what is actually tested, you have to just bite the bullet and take the outside bar review course. Don’t be cheap now that you already dropped over $100K on a worthless degree. Whats a few thousand more but a drop in the bucket you won’t be able to pay back anyway.
  5. Conflict of laws. You know how to research right? Then don’t bother. Big firms have compliance departments and neat-o computer software to make sure you don’t snag a cross-jurisdictional rule when dealing across state lines. Contracts by boilerplate define the jurisdiction of presiding law. The likelihood of a real conflict of law popping up for you is about the same as being attacked by an albino shark. And if you do have it happen, a few hours with Westlaw will fill you in. Save yourself the semester of pain.
  6. Historical law of anything. Remember… you are not getting an academic degree.
  7. Anything that sounds too PC… Feminist Theory of Law… Animal Law… anything that sounds a bit too granola-crunchy  — (Environmental law however is actually useful so there is an exception.)
  8. Patent. If you are eligible to take the Patent Bar (the likelihood is that if you are in law school you probably aren’t since it requires a technical degree or equivalent credits in science) Don’t. You won’t be hired by anyone, ever, to work with patents unless you hold a degree that ends in “engineering” (yes I am simplifying, but not by much). Your law class if it is like mine will have approximately 5 people total (I’m being generous) that can sit for the Patent Bar. If you aren’t one of them, don’t take Patent Law courses. It is worthless and arcane for you.

So, I’ve told you what not to take… I will make a quick mention of what you should take.

  • anything you are remarkably good at, or are damn near guaranteed of doing well in.
  • ERISA – boring, but applicable to job market and people are always hiring for it. Try to use it to leverage a job somewhere.
  • Tax – again.. only if you are good at this. I have found that much like science, a startling number of lawyers are horrible at math. Even basic math.
  • The small 1 credit courses your law school likely has which meets infrequently and is taught by a random non-academic lawyer. You are much more likely to get an A in it, if you are sociable you might even be able to swing an internship or connection from the lawyer teaching, the course material is invariably more interesting than the rest of the classes in law school. And all those 1 credits add up in the end if you keep putting them on your schedule whenever one fits.


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