I will probably take some cues from the book, “The Companion Text to Law School,” each week or so for a blog post. Its author, Professor Andrew McClurg, kindly granted me permission to do so. Chapter Four is all about “The First-Year Curriculum.” Even though the descriptions of courses in the book are fairly brief, they are too long to recount here. Instead, I will do a little summary.
Our first year students have four courses this semester. Three are considered “doctrinal” courses and the fourth is considered a “skills” course. Those words are a little fuzzy, but the students will tell you that the differences in the courses are stark. For the “doctrinal” courses — Civil Procedure, Property, and Torts — the students labor over reading cases, engage (often) in interactive dialogue with the professors in class, develop course outlines, and take multiple choice and essay final exams. In short, they are learning the legal “doctrine” of each subject area (hence, the name). For the “skills” course — Legal Research & Writing — the students learn the “skills” of conducting legal research and writing law office briefs and memoranda (complete with learning proper legal citation). Further, instead of a single semester-end final examination, the students in Legal Research & Writing are graded on several assignments over the course of the semester.
Here is a basic overview of the four courses:
* Civil Procedure: The students call this course “Civ Pro” (so get used to it!). The name of the course is fairly self-explanatory once you get a general idea of how the law works. There are two types of cases — civil and criminal. Any case that isn’t criminal is considered civil. These “civil” cases are governed by procedural rules, and this is what Civ Pro teaches. Specifically, the course focuses on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
* Property: Professor McClurg describes this course as follows: “In Property, students study the principles of law governing the ownership and transfer of personal property (stuff not attached to land) and real property (land or structures attached to land). . . Most of Property — and most of what students are tested on — focuses on the law of real property. Unlike the law of most other subjects, which has evolved over time, many of the rules governing property rights were frozen in place centuries ago. Thus, historical context can be more important to understanding Property than in other 1L courses.”
* Torts: Professor McClurg writes, “A torts is a civil wrong other than a breach of contract (which is also a civil wrong) for which the law allows a plaintiff to seek money damages as compensation for his injuries.” That is Torts in a nutshell. Students learn about “intentional torts” (such as assault and battery) and subjects such as “products liability” (think of all those warning labels on all the products you buy!), but they spend the bulk of the semester grappling with the topic of “negligence.” From now on, when you tell your student that she/he isn’t being “reasonable,” all that word will mean to them is Torts!!!
* Legal Research & Writing: The students refer to this course by its initials, LRW (get used to that one, too!). LRW carries a heavy workload during the semester, but is not tested during the final examination period. There will be weeks when LRW assignments tend to dominate your student’s life, and these weeks in particular tend to produce the stress that characterizes law school (i.e., “How can I keep up with everything?”). However, many argue that there is not a more important course in law school than this one. Understanding doctrine is important, but conducting legal research and writing documents is what lawyers “do.” In LRW, the students will learn how to conduct legal research. Also, during the fall semester, the students will spend a lot of time learning how to write a “memo.” A memo sounds short, doesn’t it? Well, the finished product isn’t that long, but the students will spend hours and hours on their “memo.” Contrary to popular opinion, lawyers are taught to write in a concise manner. (This idea is summarized by a favorite quote of mine — maybe from G.K. Chesterton? — “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I had to write you a long one.”) Also, in LRW, students become very familiar with something called “the Bluebook,” which is a system of legal citation.
The good news is that your student is the one going to law school (not you), so you don’t have to understand any of these things. Still, I thought it might be helpful to get a basic idea of what they are wrestling with this semester as you learn to put up with them!