Contrary to what many incoming law students believe, the typical law school curricula is a very general educational program. Most schools require a fixed number of hours to graduate; many schools' first year curricula are set and the student has no choice with regard to classes. These courses are the basic law courses, designed to assist in the development of your legal reading, reasoning, research, and analytical and writing skills, as well as begin the formidable task of teaching you the "black letter" law.
In many schools, your second and third years are largely completely at your discretion. However, if you participate in Law Review or other publication, and/or Moot Court (or Mock Trial), a great deal of your time will be dedicated to those activities.
That said, I do believe that it is useful for law students who have a general idea of their future practice areas to take certain courses. For most people, the first choice is pretty basic- whether to litigate or engage in a transactional practice ("transactional" as in corporate and business transactions, such as contracts, mergers and acquisitions and the like).
And even if your plans change, in my opinion, it is almost always of benefit to litigators to know something about transactions, and for transactional lawyers to understand the basics of litigation. The two are inetricably interwoven: transactional disputes lead to litigation, and in that litigation, the litigators must understand the substance of the transaction in dispute.
So, if you plan to litigate, you should definitely plan on taking Evidence (usually in your second year), which usually deals with the Federal Rules of Evidence (the rules describing the admissibility and handling of evidence in litigation). You probably have already taken Civil Procedure your first year (which deals with the mechanics of litigation), another extremely helpful course for future litigators. In addition, you should consider any courses or legal clinics which will give you faux or actual experience in the area. For most people, the hardest part of litigation is simply understanding the landscape- who does what. These courses will help you to "hit the ground running" after you start that first legal job. There are numerous other courses which are of benefit, however, if you understand the basic procedures involved in a lawsuit, you will be well on your way to a successful litigation career.
As an aside, there are certainly substantive specialty courses you should consider, especially if you know the specialty that you will practice in. For example, if you have always wanted to practice in family matters, you should definitely take your school's course on Family Law. However, generally these courses can only give you a very broad overview; the reality is that you will master the law and practice area only by actually practicing it. So, don't be alarmed if you find yourself working for a firm that wants you to do legal work in an area with which you are unfamiliar- the resources of the firm, its other lawyers and your own experience will help you to master the area.
Corporate transactional work, on the other hand, is a bit more technical. For example, tax law and securities law are both very statutorily-based and require a great deal of technical knowledge. I think it would be very difficult to begin a career in securities law without having taken the '33 and'34 Act courses while in law school. Likewise for tax and some of the other more specialized areas in the transactional discipline. So, if you plan to engage in a transactional career, I would advise you to seriously consider taking the core "business" law courses- tax, securities law, secured transactions, commercial paper, and the like.
Regardless, the point of all of this is to not stress any of it too much. I also recommend that you simply take courses that interest you. Talk to 3Ls and professors, or any other people you may know who have gone there before you. It is almost axiomatic in law school that you take the professor, not the course (meaning that a bad professor can make a great subject pretty ungratifying, and vice versa). Do some due diligence and perhaps even take a few risks. If you make a mistake and realize it early in the semester, you can drop the course if necessary.
Law school is a general educational discipline. It is more concerned with teaching you how to think than doling out the "black letter" law. As one of my professors said, "We don't worry about teaching you the black letter law; you take Barbri for that." However, at the same time, you are likely investing a great deal in this educational experience. You will only do it once; make the very most of it you can while you are there.
Lawyer jokes are ubiquitous-
"What do you call 30,000 lawyers lying at the bottom of the ocean? A good start, for one".
"What do you have when you have a lawyer who is buried up to his neck in the sand? Not enough sand."
"What's the difference between a lawyer and a vampire? A vampire only sucks blood at night."
And yet, books, movies and television shows about lawyers are consistently among the most popular of their genres. John Grisham has sold over 250 million books worldwide and he just keeps on cranking out one hit after another. Before Grisham, there were a number of hugely successful lawyer-authors including Scott Turow ("One L" and "Presumed Innocent"), who has sold over 25 million books and Earle Stanley Gardner, who wrote more than eighty Perry Mason novels, the hero of which was adapted into a long-running television series.
Television series such as "L.A. Law" and "Law and Order" rank consistently among the top Nielson-ranked shows. Movies about lawyers, from "Legally Blonde" and "My Cousin Vinny" to "The Verdict" and "The Firm" are top box-office features, earning millions of dollars for their studios, producers and stars.
It would appear that Americans (and arguably much of the world) have a "love-hate" relationship with the legal profession. Why?
1. First and foremost, most lawyers are actually pretty decent people. The rigors of gaining acceptance into law school, graduating from law school and then obtaining one's license to practice law, are very much a "forging" of sorts. The resulting effect is that the legal profession is populated with many smart, hard-working and resourceful people, dedicated to solving the legal problem at hand.
2. Second, generally speaking, lawyers are the only people who can do what they do. Certainly, there has been a proliferation of software for certain legal tasks recently (such as software that purports to enable the purchaser to create their own will), but for the most part, if you have a legal problem, you need a lawyer to solve it. There is simply no way around it. The law is vast, complex and extremely technical in nature.
In fact, most lawyers today are actually specialists, similar to medical doctors who practice in specialty areas. This is because as our nation has grown, its legal requirements have become substantially more complicated, both administratively and substantively. It's simply impossible for one person to gain mastery over more than a few areas of the law.
3. Most people's exposure to lawyers is in an adversarial setting (see Part I of this blog post). Generally, litigation is a "zero sum" game and there are winner's and losers.
4. Regardless, even the winners in litigation usually end up with a substantial expense, in the form of legal fees. It is beyond the scope of this post to comment on the reasonableness of legal fees (and the law firm billing model), however, I will say that unlike the cost of medical care, from which many consumers are insulated due to health insurance, there is generally no insurance for legal fees. The net result is that people requiring legal services typically have to incur expenses that they otherwise would have preferred to avoid (You might be interested to know that there are other countries that employ what is called the "loser pays" rule, in which the losing party pays both sides' legal fees. As you would expect this is a strong deterrent to a would be plaintiff bent on filing a frivolous lawsuit).
So, we Americans hate our lawyers and yet loved to be entertained with stories about them. But the bottom line is, when most people are faced with a legal problem, especially when the stakes are high, they look to find the very best lawyer they can. And secretly, we appreciate and respect the work that most lawyers do for us.
And now for the plug. Law school is a big decision. If you're thinking about it, you need to read my book, Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing- Mar
I recently read a disturbing online article about a very successful lawyer who is alleged to have solicited sex from a minor over the Internet. At the end of the article, readers could post comments. After the article was published, there were something like fifty comments immediately posted. Predictably, forty-nine of them, were to the effect tha lawyers are "scum, jerks" and other similar epithets. None of the comments really dealt with the issue raised by the article. Instead, the comments seemed to be "knee-jerk" excuses to bash lawyers and the legal profession.
During a recent haircut, my barber told me of his divorce troubles. He was sure he was getting the "shaft" (to paraphrase that immortal C & W song, "She Got the Gold Mine and I Got the Shaft"). Worse, he was absolutely convinced that, in his words, "the lawyers were in on it", in other words, he believed that the lawyers had colluded to rob him of his assets. I will discuss later why, despite popular belief, this is actually an almost zero-probility occurence.
At the outset, I should say that I don't think most people really hate lawyers. Instead, a lot of people merely think they hate lawyers. The problem is exacerbated because generalizing "lawyers" into a single group, is sort of like generalizing other professions into one category.
For example, in the case of doctors, there are doctors who are heart surgeons and those who are brain surgeons. Some doctors who deal with cancer and other doctors who deal with childbirth, pimples, gall bladders and acid reflux. And by the way, generally speaking, you likely would not go to a childbirth doctor (an "obstetrician") for chronic pimples. Similarly, there are cost accountants, certified public accountants, and auditors. I think you get the idea.
Grouping any of these folks into a single category on one level makes sense; but making assumptions about the category can lead to erroneous conclusions. The assumption that all lawyers are alike creates a logical fallacy (e.g. "He's a lawyer. All lawyers are jerks. Therefore, he must be a jerk."). The truth is, certainly there are lawyers who are jerks. However, there are clearly many good and decent lawyers out there who could never be defined as "jerks" under any definition (e.g. Abraham Lincoln), except under a completely irrational and biased analysis.
In our society, most laypeople deal with lawyers personally only in the event of a conflict, typically in the form of a civil lawsuit. Divorces, personal injury, property disputes, contract claims, product liability and warranty matters and other matters of this nature are, by definition, adversarial. Simply, in these conflicts, someone wins and someone loses (some would argue that, in a lawsuit everyone loses). Lawyers are by necessity almost always right in the middle of these disputes. And let's face it, the lawyers typically become the lightening rods in disputes.
It's understandable because to the combatants, the lawyers are the "face" of the lawsuit (And in my opinion, that's the way it should be. The lawyers act as "insulation" and reduce the personal nature of the dispute, and thus the emotional issues, which are almost always present in lawsuits). Essentially, the lawyers "become the fight."
The foregoing aside, I believe another reason people think they hate lawyers, is that lawyers are trained to argue either side or both sides of any issue. We are trained to identify issues, anticipate issues and break the issues down into seemingly infintesimal sub-issues. It's part of the "issue, rule, analysis, conclusion" methodology that drives the American legal system. It is inherent in the process.
Laypeople are generally not trained to spot these issues. There is nothing that can make you feel stupider than having someone point out something you missed. Even worse, if they point it out during a fight. It reminds us of our own shortcomings. But again, remember that this is how lawyers are trained. We do it not to show laypeople what they missed, but instead because it is in our DNA; we simply cannot help ourselves but to analyze issues in this way. But we don't mean anything personally by it.
Another problem is that there is an incredible rigorous labyrinth that one must go through, in order to become a lawyer. You have to first go to college. You have to make good grades in college. You have to take the LSAT. You have to do reasonably well on the LSAT. Then, a law school has to decide you are good enough to admit you. You have to pass law school. You have to pass an ethics exam. You have to pass the bar. It takes an incredibly determined and intelligent person to traverse this labyrinth. Simply, lawyers are focused and smart (I am not going to go into why anyone would hate someone who is intelligent and dedicated. Suffice it to say that good old-fashioned jealousy could very well play a role.)
I have worked with hundreds of lawyers, both before my legal career and during. I have never met a lawyer who was a jerk. This includes lawyers who were my adversaries in litigation. Instead, I have met people who are extremely dedicated to zealously representing their clients' interest (which, by the way, is a duty that every lawyer has to her client). In some of their zeal, some of these lawyers did things I didn't like. In fact, they angered me. But no one ever did anything that was unethical, immoral, dishonest or even unfair.
The truth is, it's very easy for clients to reports lawyers for problematic behaviour to the bar authorities. Bar authorities (which are referred to as "SROs" or "self-regulating organizations") have a huge incentive to appropriately respond to these complaints. Simply, if they do not, eventually the government will step in and do it for them. Also, the future of the profession depends upon its ability to police itself.
Unfortunately, lawyers' license are suspended, and lawyers are disbarred or put on probation every day. But, in the grand scheme of things, these lawyers are a micro-minority of the practicing profession. The percentage of lawyers disciplined each year, in statistical terms, is "statistically insignificant". And it's a very, very small percentage of lawyers that do ever do anything that would even remotely place their licenses in jeopardy. After all, why would anyone gamble with their future ability to earn a living?
There was an old commercial for what I believe were cosmetics, featuring a statuesque European model in an expensive gown. After the camera panned her perfect physique, it focused in on her flawless face. She looked into the camera and said simply, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
At the risk of flattering my profession, when you're in the middle of a fight, you want the best person in your corner you can find. And a lawyer is almost always going to be that person. Most are pretty good at what they do. But the result may not be pretty; in fights there are is almost always a loser (This is not to say that mediation isn't an option; many lawyers encourage mediation and some jurisdictions require it. But if mediation fails, you are still left with a fight). But don't hate the lawyers because of it.
In the same way, people choose to hate and blame lawyers for the disputes that arise as a result of every day life. People accidently (or ngeligiently) hit others' brand, shiny new cars, or worse. Neighbors build fences on other peoples' properties. And unfortunately, families break up.
Lawyers step in to try and protect the rights of their clients. Sometimes, it gets messy. But then again life is messy. But don't hate the lawyers because of it. As the old saying goes, "Don't shoot the messenger."
And if you're thinking about law school, be sure and pick up a copy of my book, Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31,