10.4 – Selecting Your Upper-level Classes


Understanding Your Upper-Level Classes

Freedom to choose courses

As you finish up your first year, one thing you're going to have to start thinking about, in addition to what you're doing that summer after your first year, is what classes are you going to take in your second year of law school. First year, most of the classes are going to be required. In some law schools, all the classes are required, you don't have any electives. Upper level, typically, most of the classes are electives. There may be some required courses, but the vast majority of the classes you take are ones that you're going to choose for yourself.

There's really an infinite number of possibilities of the path you could chart for yourself through your second and third years. How should you go about that process of choosing courses? Let me give you a few principles to keep in mind that I think are important.

Considerations for Choosing Classes

(1) Professional credentials, (2) can't take everything, (3) professors, (4) talking to senior students, (4) balancing workload

First of all, as always, remind yourself that you are in a professional school. You are going to law school, not just to pursue your passion, but also to earn a valuable professional credential. You may be paying a lot of money to attend law school. If you're lucky enough to have a scholarship, you're, at the very least, giving up a lot of time, giving up three years of your life to go to law school.

You want to really use that time carefully. You can only take a limited number of classes and so you want to have some idea of how the classes you're taking really are going to advance your professional goals. That doesn't mean you can't take any fun classes, things like law and psychology or something like that, but I just would discourage you from taking mostly those classes. If you think about your law school experience, you should really think of most of the classes as being core parts of the experience that you can really tell a story about how they're really teaching you something or developing your skills that are going to be a valuable part of your career rather than just stuff that seems interesting and fun.

The second thing to keep in mind is you can't take everything. At least if you find law school interesting, there's going to be more classes that seem worth taking to you than you can possibly take. There will be things you can just learn later. When I was in law school, I didn't take antitrust, just because it didn't end up working out with my schedule, but then I ended up doing a bit of antitrust practice. I wasn't as prepared to do it as I might have been if I'd taken antitrust, but there are treatises to read, there's articles to read, and I learned a bit about antitrust, and got in a position where I could practice in the area. This isn't your last chance to learn anything about the law, but the more you can learn here, I think, the better and the easier you're going to make the rest of your career.

Finally, all that said, I think you should think about, when you're selecting courses, not just choosing the course, but also choosing the professor, in the sense that a really good teacher can make what seems like a boring class interesting. A really boring professor can make what seems like an interesting class quite boring. As you're choosing between classes, I would put a fair amount of weight on what you know about different professors' teaching styles. If there was a professor you had your first year, who you just really connected with, thought he was a great teacher, or really liked their teaching style, and they're teaching some upper-level classes, think about taking those.

Talk to upper-level students, look at old course evaluations, a lot of schools make those available, and try to get a sense of who is considered a really good teacher, and maybe more importantly, who's considered really not a good teacher.

Even if you're really interested in some area, let's say you're really interested in the First Amendment and so there's an upper-level constitutional law class on the First Amendment, if the person teaching it that year is not supposed to be a great teacher, maybe wait and see if somebody else teaches it your third year, because you have a limited number of opportunities to choose classes, and you just don't want to waste one of those slots on something that isn't going to be a good learning experience.

You should, to some degree, follow things that are interesting to you, but that said, keep an open mind because as I said, good professors can make a lot of subjects interesting and it may be the case that you just don't know yet what's interesting. I'm going to talk about that a little bit more in my next lesson about how you might identify what's interesting and figure out what's interesting.

You also want to think about balancing kinds of classes so that you can make your workload manageable. You probably don't want to take five exam classes in one semester because that means at the end of the semester, you're going to be taking five exams and that sounds overwhelming. Maybe you could design it so you could take two big exam classes, one seminar that has papers throughout the semester, and then one clinic simulation class where you're doing some work throughout the semester. That means your work is going to be really distributed throughout the whole semester and then at the end, you've got two exams you can really dial in on and focus on. Think about that a little bit.

Then also, I would encourage you to look at the requirements, think ahead so you don't jam yourself up and have to take only required classes in your final semester of law school. Most schools, professional responsibility is a required upper-level class. If that's the case, think about getting that out of the way earlier so that you have more flexibility later in your law school experience.

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