Loyola University Chicago

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A CURRICULUM PLANNING GUIDE FOR
LAW STUDENTS
BY PROFESSOR CHARLES R. PURCELL

 

Every law student has had experience in planning his or her personal curriculum as an undergraduate, but for some the task appears more daunting at the professional school level. A principal reason for this is the perception that choices of upper-level courses may have significant impact on one's career as an attorney.

 

It certainly is possible to take the planning process too lightly, for decisions about which courses or programs to exclude from a student's legal education can have important consequences later. On the other hand, however, the process should not cause undue anxiety. One reason is that every course which a student decides to include in his or her own curriculum plan will certainly offer valuable information, insights, and skills which will be useful when that student, as a graduate, enters any part of the legal profession, even one never foreseen in law school days. Another reason "not to worry" is that even the most serious omissions are never beyond remedy after law school.

The purpose of this brief essay is to offer practical guidance as well as some assurance that catastrophe is not a likely result of any decision, no matter how bad that decision may look in the glare of hindsight.

 

"What Every Lawyer Should Know About...."

There was a time when very few law schools offered any electives at all. In those days the course of study was patterned after a legal profession which had few specialists and a relatively narrow scope. In such an environment law faculties could be quite sure that they knew what subjects students had to study, and, in fact, the legal curriculum differed little from one accredited law school to another. Today, however, the profession is broad and diverse. While many jurisdictions still do not formally recognize practice specialties, many lawyers, especially those practicing in large metropolitan areas, are in fact specialists in relatively narrow areas of legal practice. Today's course offerings mirror this diversity--most schools offer a wide variety of courses, many of which are quite specialized.

For the student trying to make an intelligent choice of courses, this creates an apparent dilemma: "If I have no idea who will hire me when I graduate, how can I know what specialty I ought to prepare for?" Happily, this dilemma is more apparent than real. The most important reason for this is that the required portion of the curriculum, including the entire first year and some of the upper-level courses, still reflects an informed judgment of the faculty about areas of study without which no lawyer's education would be complete: legal reasoning ("thinking like a lawyer"); legal research and writing; and the most fundamental of substantive and adjective legal concepts, such as contracts, torts, civil procedure and constitutional law. To be sure, faculties differ more than they once did about which courses are really necessary, but there is still widely-shared agreement about many of these matters, as even casual examination of law school catalogs will demonstrate. What this means to the student planning for the next semester or the next two years is that he or she already has been exposed to those areas of study which tend to cut across the entire spectrum of legal practice. Hence, regardless of how unexpected the student's ultimate career direction may turn out to be, there will be comfort in the knowledge that the foundations upon which a specialized legal practice can be built are already in place. Moreover, if a law student has mastered the basics, learning the fine points of a specialty seldom presents an insurmountable obstacle. Numerous post-graduate and CLE programs are available for that purpose.

 

"Just Close My Eyes and Point?"

While the required core of the curriculum covers the basics, it hardly follows that students have no rational basis for choosing their elective subjects. On the contrary, the student should have a plan for the last two years of law school which reflects his or her special abilities, aspirations and relationships. The plan should not be so rigid that it cannot be modified in response to changed conditions or goals, but it should be sufficiently developed to guide the student in choosing from the available menu of elective courses and programs. A little time and effort spent in developing such a plan could pay handsome dividends.

The first step is to make an inventory of facts about yourself which are relevant to the educational decisions. It is impossible to set out an exhaustive list of such facts, but among them are:

 

  • Previous educational experience. If you have a degree in accounting, for example, that may be a consideration pointing toward tax or securities law.

     

  • Work experience. Some kinds of job background could lead to a legal specialty related to that kind of job. For example, if you have worked for a railroad or operated a machine, you may have special insights into the causes of accidents in those vocations.

     

  • Special skills and aptitudes. A flair for public speaking or writing might suggest trial practice or writing appellate briefs.

     

  • Family or other relationships which have potential to shape your career. If your cousin would be pleased as punch to have you join her corporate and securities law firm, the possibility of doing so could loom large in your choices of specialized courses of study. Or, if you have been clerking for a labor relations firm, have enjoyed it, and are impressed favorably by the firm and its practice, you might want to improve your chances for a permanent position by becoming proficient in the relevant areas of the law.

     

  • Others. For example, you have opportunities to obtain clients, as from family businesses. You might consider preparing for practice in a small firm setting with emphasis on advising closely held business.

    After such matters have been inventoried, the next step should be to make choices which take proper account of such matters, but which also do not overlook factors such as these:

     

  • Bar requirements. Check any jurisdiction where you expect to seek admission to the bar for special course requirements.

     

  • Balance. Even if you know that you are going to be a specialist in patents, taxes, securities or admiralty and maritime law, do not lose sight of the fact that good lawyers, whatever their field, must be able to see their clients' legal problems in a broader perspective. It is a mistake to exclude a large variety of courses from your list, or to attempt mastery of some narrow specialty while you are still in law school.

     

  • Rigor. Law students are human, and often a course perceived as less demanding or more likely to yield a high grade tempts them to take the easy road. Sometimes that can even be a valid basis of selection; it might make good sense to sign up for a course with no writing requirement to balance off another course with a rigorous research assignment. But the potential for high grades or relatively slight effort should be low on the list of priorities, for it is in the hands of demanding teachers of difficult subjects that we tend to learn the most. After all, we all plan to market our knowledge and skills one day soon; the more finely honed they are, the greater the demand for them will be.

     

  • (Last but not least) preference. There will be occasions when the factors discussed above (and others, too) will not produce any clear-cut basis for choosing among several electives. Perhaps even scheduling convenience will yield no obvious choice. In such a case, what is wrong with going with what you like? Others may think it bizarre if you tell everyone about your strong desire to work in municipal bonds, then enroll in Entertainment and Sports Law, but if, after consideration of what the course can do for you in comparison to the available alternatives, you conclude that you will enjoy it and learn from it, why not "Go For It?" There is no rule that requires everything you study to be unpleasant or dull! Obviously, this basis for choice cannot be used very often, but there certainly are times when you will conclude that, among courses of which no one has a clear advantage, the one that will interest and motivate you the most will deliver the most benefit.

 

A Last Word.

We hope this discussion has convinced you that curriculum planning is a highly individualistic exercise for which you must take final responsibility. While it is a serious responsibility, and should not be ignored or sloughed off, it need not be intimidating or threatening. And, while you must make the final decision, do not hesitate to ask for assistance. Any faculty member will be glad to counsel with you about these things; indeed, that is an important part of his or her job, and you should feel free to ask for help (with due respect for scheduling and time constraints). Often a professor will have some relevant experience or insight that will help you to make sound choices. This is particularly true if you speak with a faculty member with whom you have had good rapport in the past.