Thoughts about choosing law school, part 4

Law schools compete for students by touting the strength of their curriculum, and with every school claiming that it is strong in a particular area, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on whether a particular school really would be better than another for a student interested in, for example, corporate law or environmental law. One possible way to assess this might be the raw number of courses in a particular area, and in a sense more can be preferred to less. That having been said, I’d encourage prospective students to look beyond raw numbers when evaluating claims of curricular excellence.

A school that offers, for example, 24 intellectual property courses surely offers far more courses than an individual student could ever take. That doesn’t mean that the large number of offerings is valueless. Rather, a student should think carefully about how many courses one can profitably devote to concentration in a particular area versus the general education that forms the foundation for the successful practice of law. For example, a student may want to specialize in intellectual property, but she should also make room in her curriculum for corporations, commercial law, antitrust, employment law, and other areas that arise when considering IP issues. Additionally, I think it’s important for students to take a class or two devoted to perspectives on law like jurisprudence, law and economics, or legal history. They greatly enrich a legal education. When one adds these classes to requirements such as professional responsibility and courses people take because the subjects appear on the bar, there aren’t that many open slots for specialization. At some point, adding classes is nice, but perhaps overkill.

A student should also evaluate whether the courses offered by a school permit effective progression from basic study to advanced possibilities. Each field has basic courses that serve as entry points of study. In the corporate law area, that would probably be a course like corporations or business associations. More advanced doctrinally oriented courses might include corporate finance, securities regulation, and mergers and acquisitions. Beyond that, students might branch out in a couple of different directions. One would be toward increasingly advanced theoretical or policy study, perhaps in a seminar with a large research project. For example, a school might offer a seminar on theories of corporate governance or applications of the efficient capital markets hypothesis. The other would be towards practical application of knowledge and skills training. These classes would include classroom skills courses like drafting or trial practice, live client clinics where students actually practice under the supervision of faculty, and externship placements in law firms, companies, or government offices.

Obviously, the course content of a particular curriculum is not the only thing that determines its quality. A lot depends on who does the teaching, a subject I will address in another post. But for now, students can probably identify schools that will serve their needs by considering not only the number of offerings in an area of interest, but also the structuring of the curriculum to provide opportunities for intellectual depth and development of skill.

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5 Responses

  1. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    I concur. Thanks for this and your other thoughtful posts on choosing a law school. Students, prospective and current, plus legal academics, will learn from them.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    BTW comparative law both provides an enriching perspective and is practical, especially (though not exclusively) if you’re thinking of doing transactions.

  3. If I am at liberty to post a dissenting opinion without offense, let me say this: I totally disagree. Apart from purely economic considerations (if those factor into your decision-making process) you should always go to the best school you can get into. If Harvard accepts you, go there. If Yale lets you in, go there. Pretty much the same analysis holds with all of the top 10. You will find interesting courses at all of the top law schools, but none of them — in fact, no law school — will turn you into an intellectual property lawyer or an environmental lawyer, or a tax attorney, or any other particular breed of lawyer. Only practice will do that, and the only way you are guaranteed to keep all of your options open to practice in the area you suspect you want to practice in, is to go to a school that has name-recognition and gets you bang-for-the-buck in interviews. Lest you think I am an elitist prig, I readily admit that there are many fantastic lawyers who went to what the world would call (or think of) as marginal law schools. You don’t have to go to Yale to be a good lawyer. In fact, you don’t have to go to law school at all in California to be a good lawyer (since CA still recognizes apprenticeship). But the last reason you should chose a law school is for course content — a year after graduation none of what you learned in law school will be remotely relevant to what you are doing, as law school has very little to do with the practice of law. So if you want to be an IP lawyer, sure, take trademarks, and copyright, and even patent law in school if it’s offered — maybe even throw in an internet law class to be cutting edge — but don’t pick your law school because it offers those classes.