1.4 – Types of Law School Classes and the Role of Exams


Types of Law School Classes and Role of Exams

Before we really dive in, I think it's helpful to talk a little bit about the different types of law school classes because it helps you understand the task that's going to be in front of you over your three years of law school.

Podium Classes

Centered around particular area of law

The most prevalent kind of class, the one that most of your classes in the first year are going to consist of, are what I described before as podium classes, also called ~~doctrinal~~ classes. These are courses, they're usually centered around some particular area of the law, like criminal law, or criminal procedure, or contracts, or civil procedure. There's one professor who stands in the front of the room, at a podium usually, and you spend three, four, or five hours a week over the course of the semester, and you're really going to focus on this one area of law.

You're going to do that, typically, by reading a casebook that's going to contain a bunch of published appellate decisions about this area of law. Each day, you're going to work through a different discrete topic, often using the Socratic method where the professor calls on you. Then, at the end of the semester, you will be evaluated using an exam. I'm going to come back to that concept in a minute, but before that, I just want to quickly tell you about the other types of law school classes.

Legal Writing

Developing drafts, memos, briefs

Another class you might have in your first year is legal writing. I've mentioned this a little bit already, but the idea here is you're going to write certain kinds of written assignments. You're going to usually develop them in drafts. It's designed to teach you the skill of legal writing. Often, it's going to be paired with legal research, and you're going to develop maybe a legal memo or a legal brief. That's usually a required first-year class, although often, people don't take any other legal writing courses beyond that required first year of class.


Focused discussion and writing

There also are upper-level courses, which are seminars. These are usually smaller enrollment than doctrinal classes, maybe they've got fifteen or twenty students in them. Sometimes you're going to read things that are maybe not just focused on what we call the "black letter law," focusing on the rules of law, but instead theory. You might take a jurisprudence, which is a legal philosophy seminar. It's an area you should really explore a little bit, and these classes also are going to often involve writing. You might write multiple short papers, you might write a longer paper. Part of the idea is, here, you're going to really develop your ability to talk about the law in a small group, and do some focused writing.


Learning to represent clients under supervision

Then there are also classes which are clinics or sometimes practicums. These are courses where you're going to work often under supervision of an instructor who's a practicing lawyer, and you might actually get to practice law in some way before you graduate from law school, before you've taken the bar. In some of these clinics, you can be out there, in court, representing clients, providing legal services to them.


Then there's other versions of courses that are not exactly clinics, that are called simulations, where they're really designed to simulate what the practice of law is, but you're not actually representing clients.

I'm going to say a little bit about all these different types of classes later in this class, but the main focus of this course is going to be doctrinal or podium classes because this is really going to be the bread and butter of most people's law school experience. It makes up the bulk of the first year, and for most people, it makes up the bulk of all three years of law school.


Blind-graded, open-book, take-home, closed-book exams

How do these work in terms of grades, in terms of how you're evaluated? Well, the traditional model is that there's one blind-graded exam at the end of the semester, and that is 100% of your grade. That's it. Now, some schools and some professors will do things a little differently. Maybe you'll have graded midterms, maybe there will be graded classroom participation, maybe there will be graded assignments along the way.

This isn't going to be the case everywhere, but more often than not, you're going to see a course where everything, or close to everything, is going to turn on this one exam at the end of the semester. Sometimes it's an open-book, take-home exam, sometimes it's a closed-book, two- or three-hour, in-class exam. Basically, what you're being asked to do is distill everything you learned from a semester. Maybe it was a five-hour class, for five hours a week, for 12 or 13 weeks, and distill all that knowledge into a very short, timed exam, and that might be 90% or 100% of your grade.

That's intimidating for people. I think people find that a little scary, and I totally understand that. I think that there are reasons to feel that way and that it does feel like there's a lot of pressure put on these exams, especially when you consider what we talked about already, which is that law school grades do matter.

~~First-year~~ grades actually maybe matter a little bit more because a lot of people find particular professional opportunities like maybe a summer firm job or a clerkship. They get those positions often at the beginning of their second year, and so it's really those first-year grades that are playing a big role in how those early jobs are assigned.

With these exams, as I noted also, they're blind-graded. What that means is that you might have a great relationship with your professor, you might participate a lot in class, but that doesn't really matter for how the exam is going to be graded. Maybe class participation is a separate part of your grade, that's how I teach, but in terms of the exam, it's really going to be all about what you put on the page for that exam.

That means that exams are going to be really important, and they're going to actually play a significant role in your career. But the good news is how you perform on exams is not just a question of raw talent or legal smarts. Instead, it's a skill that you can practice, that you can develop, and we're going to be talking about that in this course.

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