It’s the weekend, so as promised, I’ll talk a bit about each of my classes, and the law school paradigm in general. Disclaimer: This got really long. Apparently I have lots to talk about.
tl;dr version: I like my law school classes, they’re not like other courses I’ve taken before.
One thing that every potential law student hears dozens of times is that, regardless of the education you’ve had so far, “law school is different”. No one really quite explains it to you, except for that it’s “different”. They might mention things like “cold calls” and “socratic method”, and the fact that your grade is (often) based entirely on one single test administered at the end of the semester. You hear about having to “brief” cases, but no one wants to tell you what that means or how you go about briefing them. And then you hear about the supplements – books that you can buy in addition to the required texts that supposedly will help you ace your exams. People point you in the direction of books like One L and movies like Paper Chase, and either warn you that law school will be exactly like that, or reassure you that law school is no longer anything like that.
Now, I should probably remind everyone (myself included) that I’ve only been here for (almost) two weeks, and I’ve had (less than) a week of classes. However, I feel that I’ve seen enough of the classes to be able to talk a little bit about how law school works. Obviously, I can’t yet speak to the apparent horror I’ve been told exam week is. I’m sure I’ll talk about that when the time comes, or perhaps after the time has long past and is just a distant, awful, stressful memory.
First of all, all of a 1L’s courses are chosen for them. I didn’t pick a single class or time (fortunately, I’m really happy with the schedule I was given). The upside to this is that the incoming class is divided into sections, so if you have someone in one of your classes, they’ll be in all of your classes. These sections are about 90 people. Within each section, we’re further divided for a class NYU refers to as “Lawyering”. This small class (less than 30 students) is structured completely differently from the other courses, and seems to be a relatively novel, innovative approach to teaching the law. I’ll talk about it last.
Our other three courses are the traditional “law school” classes. Right now, I’m taking Torts, Contracts, and Civil Procedure (shortened to Civ Pro, because we don’t like phrases that are more than two syllables). Class, in general, consists of reading through the opinions court’s had for various cases that exemplify a matter of law. We brief the case at home – basically, we write a summary that hits all the important things (who was involved, what court decided it, the facts of the case, what issue did the court decided, and how and why did they decide it the way they did). When we get to class, the professor, if he or she follows the socratic method, picks a student, and asks him or her questions about the case (this is referred to as a “cold call”). The student answers to the best of his or her ability, and is more often than not wrong. The professor continues asking questions until the student gets to the right answer, sometimes calling on additional students in the process. (Occasionally the professor gives up, and tells the student the answer. This has happened once.)
One of my professors operates almost exclusively with the socratic method. Another uses a mixed approach; he calls on a student, but once that student runs into problems, volunteers from the class are called upon. My third professor exclusively asks for volunteers (assuming he’s getting adequate participation from the class).
The classes themselves are interesting, for someone who wants to be a lawyer. Civ Pro is exactly what it sounds like – it goes over the rules of Civil Procedure. Right now we’re focusing on jurisdiction and how it relates to Due Process. Contracts, again, is exactly what you expect. We’re going over when a promise is more than just a promise, and becomes a contract, enforceable by law. Torts is (according to some) “implied contracts”. It covers civil cases in which there is no contract. Right now, it’s basically the law of unintended consequences; For example, a “light kick” to a boy’s shin results in him losing the use of his leg – is the kicker responsible, and for how much of the damages?
In a sense, these courses all go together. Honestly, Criminal Law (abbreviated as crim law – we really don’t like using more than two syllables) would be a little confusing if taught with Torts, because they use the same vocabulary to mean completely different things. Both have some version of “intent” playing a role in decisions, and we’re currently learning about the intentional tort of battery. This battery is very different from the “assault and battery” we’re used to hearing about, legally speaking.
Two of my professors have assigned readings in addition to the cases. We were asked to read the Restatement (2d) of Contracts – this basically takes the rules that courts have formulated for Contract law, and put them in one place. It’s not statutes, because Contracts is a common law subject, but it’s the closest thing Contracts has. We’ve also looked at some of the theory behind Contract law. For Torts, we’ve read (comparatively speaking) quite a bit of theory. We also read a bit on how worker’s compensation programs, insurance, and Torts intersect, which was kind of interesting; in addition to a piece discussing domestic violence and workplace harassment and Tort law, which was very interesting.
So, basically, in three of my four classes, I’m reading opinions written by various judges throughout the years (some from the 1800’s, some more recent). Then we analyze them to try to figure out what the state of the law is. We’re expected to think critically, and are free to disagree with rationales and decisions made by the courts. My fourth class is completely different.
In Lawyering, we’re asked to pretend that we’re lawyers. As the name suggests (we’re not a very creative bunch, as far as naming conventions go), in Lawyering we learn what lawyers do, and how to do it. We learned how to interpret a single case, and apply it to a new situation in order to have (very informal, brief) oral arguments in front of a panel of judges in order to get them to rule in favor of our client. As judges, we used precedent, statutes, and the oral arguments to determine how to rule in a particular case. Our current assignment is to draft an argument either in support of or countering a motion to dismiss. We have to take a set of 7 cases and use them to provide reasons for the court to rule for our client. In future units, we’ll practice oral advocacy, negotiation, and mediation, among other things.
It’s really beneficial to have Lawyering in addition to my other classes. For one thing, the class is smaller so it’s easier to get personalized attention. On top of that, it’s nice to know a subset of the large classes on a more personal level. But perhaps most importantly, this course is providing us the practical knowledge that we’ll use when we start working – as early as our first summer. Another difference that sets Lawyering aside is that it’s a year-long course, instead of just a semester, and it’s pass/fail. There is no final exam, and there are many assignments throughout the year.
All told, I’m absolutely enjoying my classes. I’m looking forward to next semester (Crim law, and the possibility of taking Constitutional Law – Con Law). I haven’t experienced a cold call yet – but that’s just a matter of time. Following along with the group, though, it seems like I understand most of the content, so I’m hoping for the best, but worst case scenario is I’m wrong, the professor corrects me, and then everyone forgets about it.