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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Electives during first year

Does it make sense to set up the first-year curriculum so that students can take an elective?  If so, should the menu of choices be limited?  How?  What do people think?

Posted by Rick Garnett on April 13, 2006 at 04:55 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Absolutely not! For goodness sakes - law schools send students out into the legal workforce with what can be described only as a "limited" amount of actual legal knowledge. I suspect it is those classes (Con. law, Corporations, Tax) which are MOST practical which would be placed on the "elective" chopping block.

C'mon. Law school is too long and too expensive. Faculty should do what they can to keep the education of students as relevant as possible. That should not include permitting students to take some ridiculous "Law and ..." seminar their first year.

Posted by: bsa | Apr 15, 2006 12:07:18 PM

Virginia offers 1Ls the opportunity to take 4-7 elective credits the Spring semester of the 1L year with no formal restriction other than that normal course prerequisites must be met. Since the basic Con Law course is taught to 1Ls in the Spring, the most practical impact is just that any of the various upper level courses requiring it as a prerequisite obviously can't be taken that semester.

I think the idea of 1L electives is extremely positive for several reasons. First, it increases student satisfaction by letting them begin to pursue areas of particular interest to them rather than just subjects that the faculty has deemed they must be subjected to early on. This is particularly encouraging for those of us interested in areas like public international law not commonly part of the 1L core curriculum (In my own case I was able to take both Int'l Crim Law and Oceans Law my first year). Second it allows the student to select a course that might be directly relevant to intended first-year summer employment. Third, it allows a student knowing they're interested in upper level courses that have a specific pre-requisited, like Evidence or Federal Tax to knock out the prequisite right away and then have maximum flexibility to complete the advanced level courses in the remaining two years. And finally, it allows students the opportunity to take full advantage of infrequently offered courses. At Virginia, for example, Admiralty Law is typically offered only once every three years, so an interested student is only going to have one opportunity to take it. If it fell during your first year and there was no elective opportunity, you'd be completely out of luck.

The last few U VA graduating classes have all exceeded an 80% five year gift pledge rate (90% of the class of 2006 have already pledged to make a gift each of the next five years). If other law schools are not receiving this kind of endorsement from their grads, perhaps they should consider more first year electives as a small but significant first step to improving consumer (student) satisfaction.

Posted by: Dave Glazier | Apr 15, 2006 11:10:16 AM

NYU has gradually moved from a completely prescribed 1L curriculum to one that offers a number of defined choices. I think it is a good model.

Starting a few years ago they added a required 1L course on "The Administrative and Regulatory State" but students choose sections with a somewhat different substantive focus (e.g. environmental law, communications law, health law).

This year, 1Ls were given another first-year elective to be chosen among property, con law, corporations, tax, or international law (I guess taking to heart Paul Horwitz's point on following the school's curricular strengths). Students still have to take property and con law later if they do not take them as 1L electives.

I don't know how the most recent changes are being received, but the admin & regulatory innovation was successful enough that the faculty then took another step toward 1L flexibility. I think is is odd to give 1Ls a completely fixed schedule, and then turn them loose the following year to choose practically whatever courses they like. So much 1L alienation is about the infantalizing loss of control that some experience, so giving a few (carefully structured) curricular choices probably helps. And I agree with other commenters that it is good to help 1Ls feel they are learning the stuff that they want to learn, and not only the foundational doctrinal material.

Posted by: NYU Grad | Apr 14, 2006 12:12:29 PM

Penn 1L's have two limited elective classes in the 2nd semester of their first year. That is, they may choose two of their four classes (not counting year-long legal writing) from two lists, one course from each list. One list is something like "administrative/regulative" and has such courses as Admin law, Environmental law, etc. The other is called something like "perspectives on the law" and is a bit of a hodge-podge- examples include Jurisprudence, privacy, public international law, IP law, etc. It seems to work quite well, both in having some structure as to what's offered (and learned) and to giving students a reasonable amount of freedom.

Posted by: Matt | Apr 13, 2006 6:04:57 PM

Alas, CLS 1L -- I loved those courses.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 13, 2006 5:50:15 PM

Rick, I should have added one more category -- I meant to add it but Kevin's remark reminds me of my failure: courses that are foundational to some set of courses that represents a subject area in which your school is strong and which may have drawn your students to the school in the first place. Many students come to SW in part because of its entertainment law program, and I believe one of the electives available to first-years will be a foundational course in this area, which will allow students to start exploring the field quickly and take care of a major prerequisite to further courses. ND might, for instance, make a basic international law and/or human rights course available to its first-years, given its strength in those areas; law and religion is trickier because of the con law component, but a possibility.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 13, 2006 5:49:13 PM

Columbia has since done away with the Perspectives/Reg State electives in the 1st year. Instead, 1Ls choose from a bunch of different electives -- Feminist Legal Theory, LAw and Econ, etc.

Posted by: CLS 1L | Apr 13, 2006 5:46:07 PM

I definitely think 1Ls should be offered at least one elective, if only to remind them why they came to law school. The first year at Georgia is very traditional; the only public law class we offer is criminal law. (Constitutional law is a 2L and 3L elective.) As a result, the public-interest types often feel completely alienated during the first year -- they don't study anything they find particularly interesting or useful. Even one elective, I think, would help alleviate that alienation.

I like the way 1L electives worked at Stanford when I was there. We were allowed to take 2-4 electives second semester in a wide range of areas. Not all upper-level courses were open to 1Ls, but many were -- the ones that didn't require specialized prerequisites. The electives I took, criminal procedure and evidence, were (along with constitutional law) the highlight of my first year.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Apr 13, 2006 5:35:39 PM

Southwestern just approved such a policy. I believe that UCLA does or once did it, based on a recent chat with someone from there. Our own policy is based on a limited set of courses, I think. I'm agnostic as to whether such a policy *should* be implemented -- Columbia, when I was there, offered a set curriculum for first-years that, to my mind, had some very interesting and innovative courses -- but I think it *may* safely be implemented. In my view, if 'twere done, 'twere best done on the basis of a limited menu. As to what that menu might include, some basic ideas, in a not-quite-typological fashion: 1) PR or PR-oriented courses; 2) law & econ; 3) law & politics, public choice, public policy etc. (the Columbia version, which I loved, was "Foundations of the Regulatory State"); 4) legal theory; 5) practice-oriented courses -- drafting, litigating, negotiation/ADR, etc., ie. courses that give students an opportunity to put their first-year courses to work in a practical context; 6) legislation/statutory interpretation (which I love to teach!).

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 13, 2006 5:24:06 PM

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