Handout - Perspectives

Course Selection

Perceptions and Perspectives  (advice from others):

As with many other questions one encounters in law school, the question of what courses to take is one to which there is no single, "correct" answer. What has worked for others won’t necessarily work for you. Still, it never hurts to ask - and in fact, we have done just that, on your behalf. Here’s what different people have said: (to view comments, click on the name)

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Updated 4/11/06

 

Professor Jane Aiken: The practice of law often lacks intellectual stimulation. Take advantage of the short time you are in an academic environment. Choose some courses just because they interest you even if (maybe especially if) you don’t think you will ever practice in that area.

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Lisa Pickard Baron, Class of 1987; President, Family Alzheimers Care Environment: I chose classes that would benefit me in my long-term objectives and short-term objectives. Thinking long term I chose classes that would benefit my career. I chose classes that I would need and use in my chosen field of practice. Thinking short term, I tried to balance my schedule. I partnered classes that I knew would be time-consuming and challenging with classes that were slightly less time-consuming. The one class I regret never taking was Federal Income Tax. I believe it is a basic core class that every student, no matter what their field, needs to know and understand.

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Professor/Associate Dean David M. Becker: Some people come to law school committed to do specific things with their life that require concentrated knowledge. For example, someone who knows that he or she is destined to be a tax lawyer must obviously take all of the tax offerings and, therefore, must give these courses the highest priority. Very few people, however, fall into this category. The next priority might consist of courses most every one should have. I always keep this list very short. Although there might be disagreement among faculty members, my list would include: evidence, administrative law, corporations, tax (one course) and maybe a planning and drafting course. Essentially, these courses add up to one semesters worth of time. My last priority- one that applies to seventy-five per cent of a student’s elective curriculum and one that should really be the highest priority for nearly all students-is a simple one. Take those courses that "turn you on" to learning and, therefore, will produce the very best kind of student experience. This could be a function of subject matter. For me, however, it was always a reflection of the teacher. Karl Llewelllyn had told me to select courses by teacher; nevertheless, I did not act on his advice until my senior year of law school. Somehow I was certain that I would dislike a tax course, but I also knew that I had to have at least one such course because of the work I was going to do after graduation. So I put off tax until the fall quarter of my third year; consequently, I began the year with a course on Federal Income Tax. One month later I knew that I was having my best time in law school. As a result, I took every course that teacher offered over the remaining two quarters-two tax courses and one course on bankruptcy and reorganization. It was the best decision I made while in law school.

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Beverly Beimdiek, Assistant Public Defender in the St. Louis Capital Division: When choosing courses to take, avoid taking only the classes you think you are interested in. Take a class in something you fear, or something you think you will have no interest in. As a Trial Practice Adjunct Professor, I am always impressed by the students who tell me on the first day of class that they took Trial Practice because they never want to be a litigator and never want to see the inside of a courtroom. Sometimes, by the end of the semester, their feelings have been confirmed. But other times, students who have said they never want to litigate are now considering an entirely different career path in litigation. I never took a tax class because I was afraid of it. While I probably would never have become a great tax attorney, I still regret not taking at least one tax class.  This is not to say you shouldn't sign up for the things you are interested in. My very favorite class, when I was in law school, was the criminal clinic I took during the first semester of my third year. I always thought I wanted to be a public defender and working in the clinic confirmed it.  The opportunity to actually learn about and observe the practice of law outside of a classroom can't be beat. Clinics, whether civil or criminal will allow you to meet lawyers. Even if you don't stay and practice in St. Louis, those lawyers can be valuable references for you when you begin your job search. I still hear from former law students who have worked in the public defender's office even after they have moved away from St. Louis.   My only regret was taking the criminal clinic during the first semester of  my third year instead of my second semester of third year. Staying focused on my classes during that final semester was a challenge once I had seen the "real world."

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Janet Bolin, Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Services: I would strongly advise taking a transactional class to develop your planning and drafting skills instead of relying exclusively on a future employer to provide this type of experience.

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Suzanne Brown, Class of 1996; Partner, Brown & Wichmer; Founder, The Immigration Project: Several students have called me recently to ask what they should take if they are interested in Immigration Law. I tell them to take what sounds good; that they will learn the "practice" of Immigration Law (or anything else) at work, and that the best plan of action for those interested in immigration is to go to work or volunteer at an agency serving the needs of immigrants in any capacity-get to know their lives, their needs, etc.

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Michael Burton, Class of 1985;Circuit Judge of the 21st Circuit: Without a doubt, my most valuable law school experiences came from my trial advocacy and clinical courses. Dealing with real lawyers and real world experiences gave me my first real glimpse at life after law school. By having the opportunity to actually "practice" law, I ultimately determined the field of law that was best for me. Without these experiences, I would have sought a career solely on the basis of my interest in a particular subject ( that was taught in one of the traditional classes that I had taken). This course of action would have proven to be disastrous. If I were selecting classes for my second year of law school, I would make every effort to get into as many trial advocacy courses, judicial clerkships, and clinical programs as I could. Most of these courses will not be available until the third year, but there may be an occasional opportunity before then. During the second year, I would take most of the necessary traditional core courses (including Evidence), so that I could have as much flexibility and as many opportunities as possible during my third year.

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Professor Barbara Flagg: My advice is to choose courses by professor. Ask other students, but ask several, and know something about the person making the recommendation.

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Christopher Goddard, Class of 2005; Assistant United States Attorney, Eastern District of Missouri:-TREAT A FEW COURSES AS "REQUIRED."  While Washington University does not have any "required" upper-level courses, consider taking Evidence, Corporations, Federal Income Tax, and Con Law II because they complete the "core" legal knowledge provided during your first year.  I submit the fact that other schools require these courses as evidence that these courses provide important substantive knowledge which all attorneys should possess.  
-TAKE PROFESSORS, NOT TOPICS.  Beyond these "core" courses, I recommend that students select courses based primarily on professor and only secondarily on content.  This suggestion derives from my more general advice to make concerted efforts to develop meaningful relationships with a few professors during your three years of law school.  The lessons you learn from an effective teacher will outlast and outweigh the substantive information covered in a given course.  
-COURSES FOR CLERKSHIPS.  If you are considering a judicial clerkship, consider taking classes such as Federal Jurisdiction, CJA I & II, Conflict of Laws, and Con Law II.

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Professor Dean Katherine Goldwasser: At the risk of sounding completely crazy ( a risk that’s never bothered me much), my advice about choosing courses is to take the ones that you are most likely to enjoy. Students sometimes assume that the most to be hoped for from a law school class is that it will be "useful" or "beneficial" in some way, but that "fun" is out of the question. I think that is a serious mistake. Granted, you may end up miserable anyway (it’s been known to happen), but your chances increase dramatically if you proceed from the premise that misery is inevitable. Under my suggested approach, taking a course because you think the professor is fabulous, or because the subject matter has always fascinated you, or because the "word on the street" is that the course is great are all good reasons; taking one because you’ve been told that everyone should , or because of the kind of exam the teacher gives, are not.

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Nancy Hammer, Class of 1991; Director of International Division, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Washington D.C.: I suggest that second year students take a wide range of courses that interest them. Don’t take all courses within one discipline or one type of law because you never know what might spark your interest or take you in a different direction.

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Greg Hewett, Class of 1994; Investment Banker, Credit Suisse First Boston, London, England: Enroll in courses that you want to take for your own reasons and do not get too caught up in what courses you "ought" to take for the bar exam, prospective employers or anyone else. The bar review class will teach you what you need to know for the bar exam (which is as much about test taking skills as your knowledge of substantive law.) Similarly, your employer will give you the opportunity to learn, although often under fire, what you need to know in practice. Consequently, I have no regrets for having made my class schedules based on whether I enjoyed classes with the particular professor, whether the class was scheduled at a time that would interfere with work or extracurricular activities, and whether the subject matter interested me. I am, however, most grateful for the courses that exposed me to new experienced and ways of thinking . First -year courses and certain survey courses such as Administrative Law and Labor Law taught basic legal analysis and provided a useful grounding in the subject matter. Other courses such as criminal procedure taught the invaluable skill of reconciling and applying leading cases to fact patterns in gray areas. Courses in tax and environmental law taught the skills crucial to integrating statutes, regulations and administrative pronouncements to reach a conclusion. Other courses such as pre-trial, trial and reorganization seminar provided valuable insights in to the practical application of the law. Practicum courses such as the judicial internship also provided a fantastic opportunity for learning from practicing lawyers. Take advantage of the variety of classes offered and do not hesitate to take a class that , for whatever reason, appeals to you.

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Professor/Associate Dean Daniel Keating : Remember that law school is the last opportunity that you will have to learn an entire area of the law without the pressure to respond to the narrow problem of a particular client. Consider your upperclass years as an opportunity to sample different areas of law, even those that might not seem appealing to you on the surface. For that reason, I would advise that you try taking a variety of courses from the curriculum rather than attempting to specialize toward one field.

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Andrew J. Koshner, Class of 1985; President and CEO of JurisTemps, Inc., St. Louis, MO:  The focus in law school should be on process and intellectual growth, not on substantive material. Practicing attorneys realize that new J.D.'s know almost nothing about the real world practice of law. The amount of substantive law that you pick up in law school, will only be of general use later on. Therefore, my recommendation is to pick classes that are of personal interest and to pick professors who have a reputation for teaching excellence. A well rounded education is generally better than one that is narrowly focused. The best class I took in law school was "Conflicts." Although not particularly useful in the average daily practice of most attorneys, it was well taught, intellectually challenging, and contained fundamental principles of legal analysis and reasoning. Enjoy the intellectual endeavor of law school and remember that it isn't a trade school.

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Tomea Mayer, Class of 1991; Associate Dean for Career Services: Law school teaches you how to learn; don't expect to graduate with all of the substantive knowledge you need for your career. I think it is important to choose classes which give you a broad base of knowledge and plenty of training in analyzing complex factual and statutory problems. For example, Immigration Law is the best class I ever took for truly complex statutory and regulatory interpretation; the skill is applicable to many substantive areas. Having said that, I also believe that every law student should take Evidence and Tax; people expect you to know those things . . . it's pretty embarrassing when you can't explain to your friends what is going on in Law and Order or when your accountant can't walk you through your tax returns. Finally, don't worry about taking classes just for the bar exam; bar review will teach you all you need to know about a topic to pass the bar; think about what you want to know for after the bar.

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Professor Chuck McManis : My advice is as follows: 1)Take professors, not courses; 2) Choose courses more for the legal skills you will develop than for the subject matter of the course (My own unscientific experience as a law clerk convinced me that the net significance of having had, as opposed to not having had, a course in a particular subject was gaining about 20 minutes in lead time in doing research); and 3) Take courses that you think will stimulate your imagination, deepen your understanding of or commitment to a particular career track, or broaden your perspective on the legal system or life in general. Three bad reasons for taking a course: 1) It's on the bar exam (the hardest part of the bar exam is the multistate, and all but one of the subjects on the multistate are covered in the first year; the toughest thing about the essay questions is figuring out whether a given question is actually a trust and estates question or is in reality the professional responsibility question); 2) It's an essential course for general practice (in reality, there is almost no such thing as "general practice;" you will probably become more specialized than you could possibly imagine, and in an area you never thought you were interested in at all); and 3) Everyone else is taking it (what do they know?).

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Professor Neil M. Richards, Associate Professor of Law: There are some courses that every student should take in law school - not so much to be prepared for the bar exam (though they help with that, too) but in order to be a well-rounded lawyer, conversant with a range of doctrinal and legal issues. I would place corporations, tax, evidence, ethics, a clinic or trial advocacy, Conlaw II (the 14th Amendment course) and probably Conlaw III (First Amendment) in that category. But law school is not just a trade school but also a last opportunity for intellectual challenge and development in an academic setting, so I would also recommend taking courses that combine law with history, economics, political science, philosophy, and other approaches to study the law in an interdisciplinary context, particularly in seminars that let you research and discuss the issues in the complexity they warrant. The goal is to be a well-prepared and well-educated attorney - not merely to be covered to take the bar exam, but to be able to think about and critique the institution of law from a wide variety of perspectives.

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