University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Political Science


“What courses will I take in law school?”

American legal education is a fairly standardized process. There is a stock set of courses that are just about universally required of all first-year students at all law schools: Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Property, and Torts. In addition to these six substantive courses, all first-year law students must take a course on Legal Writing (sometimes called “Legal Methods,” or “Lawyering”), and there is also a required course in legal ethics (usually called “Professional Responsibility”). These courses are all part of the first-year curriculum … except that law students typically take only three courses per semester. This means that part of the “first-year” curriculum has to be held aside until the second year (and law school is only a three-year process).

There may be some variance in the scheduling of these required courses; some law schools hold aside Constitutional Law until the second year, others may postpone Property, for example. In addition, some courses may be taught as a full-year course spread over two semesters (Civil Procedure is often taught like this). And some courses may be offered as a full-year workload, but crammed into a labor-intensive one-semester course that students would take four days a week instead of three (and one of those days might be a double-length session; two hours instead of only one).

While there may be variety in the way the first-year curriculum is scheduled, there is no discretion … at least not for the law student. The first-year course load is assigned by the law school, and there are no electives. You will take Torts when your law school tells you to take Torts.

Nor is there any real variety in what is taught in a given course. You may have a friend at a different law school, perhaps they are even clear across the country … if you were to ask your friend what courses they were taking at that moment, they would probably recite a list similar to your own. Furthermore, if you were to ask them what color their Contracts textbook was, and if it matched the color of your textbook, you would probably be able to guess what case they covered in class that day.

However, this set of required courses is not the end of your course requirements. In addition to this boilerplate “first-year” curriculum, there is a series of other courses that you essentially “have to” take, even though they may not be official requirements … because a failure to take them will look very odd to prospective employers. For example, if you were to interview for a job in a prosecutor's office, you would need to have taken (or be taking) courses such as Evidence, Criminal Procedure, and Federal Courts. Or, if you were to interview for a job in a private firm, you would need to have taken (or be taking) courses such as Corporations, Tax, Secured Transactions, and Bankruptcy. In fact, certain law schools formally require some of these courses; Evidence and Corporations are the most prevalent examples.

Outside of the “first-year” curriculum, you do have some flexibility. If your law school doesn't formally require you to take Corporations, for example, you can opt to take it in your second or third year, in the fall or the spring (subject, of course, to the professor's schedule). You will also have some opportunities to take nonstandardized seminars … but these opportunities will be limited, simply because once you have satisfied all of your official and de facto requirements, there just aren't that many remaining “slots” in your three-year schedule.

Last modified November 15 2010 04:50 PM