What Classes Should Every Law Student Take?

Naturally, if a student knows that he's going to specialize in some field, he probably ought to take the cases most relevant to that field. Of course the first year classes — usually contracts, property, torts, criminal law, civil procedure, and (generally) constitutional law — are mostly mandatory, for good reason. You'd want to take some skills classes, depending on which ones the school is good at, and which seem likely to be relevant to your future specialization. And in my view the more writing classes you can take, the better.

But what other second-/third-year classes are important in nearly all areas of the law, so that a student should think several times before skipping them? Here's my list:

  • Basic tax.

  • Remedies (injunctions, damages, restitution, etc., for the non-lawyer readers who are still reading this post).

  • Business associations (called "corporations" in some schools, though in theory "business associations" also covers partnerships and some other forms of organization).

  • Evidence (even if you're not going to be a litigator, it's helpful to understand things such as privileges, and various other rules about admissibility).

  • Any class taught by a professor with a last name of Volokh; doesn't matter what the first name is. Oh, wait, that means we'd have to grade more exams . . . .

What do you think? Thanks to reader Adam Levin for the pointer.

Tax? Really? I mean, tax???

Is this really so relevant to someone who wants to do litigation? Is there no way that I can happily be a lawyer without ever cracking the internal revenue code?
7.19.2006 1:35am
Recent Grad:
That's pretty much my list. For the policy/sociology types, criminal procedure can be a great class.

The only class I regret taking is professional responsibility. Unfortunately it's mandatory, so you can't avoid it. Try to schedule it at the least inconvenient time. No need to worry about coordinating with the MPRE (the ethics exam)--the pass rate is extremely high.
7.19.2006 1:35am
Tax? Really? I mean, tax???

Is this really so relevant to someone who wants to do litigation? Is there no way that I can happily be a lawyer without ever cracking the internal revenue code?
7.19.2006 1:35am
Armen (mail) (www):
For litigators conflict of laws and admin laws are almost required. For transactional, I hear bankruptcy is almost required.
7.19.2006 1:37am
Fern R (www):
Prof. Volokh--All the classes you listed were mandatory at my school, except remedies. And unfortunately, we didn't have any professors named Volokh. But I thouht you were the one and only Professor Volokh? Is your brother teaching now as well?

Tax? Really? I mean, tax???

Is this really so relevant to someone who wants to do litigation? Is there no way that I can happily be a lawyer without ever cracking the internal revenue code?

From what I understand, there are important tax issues associated with settlement agreements. I wouldn't know because I couldn't keep my eyes open in Fed Tax. But that's what I'm told...
7.19.2006 1:53am
Dan Schmutter:

The overarching functioning of the Bankruptcy Code is definitely one of those statutes that is much easier to understand when you have studied it first in class. If you plan to do anything even remotely related to business, you need to understand the basic workings of the Bankruptcy Code.

7.19.2006 1:58am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
I have to admit that I have never understood the basis for viewing Tax as a "must take" course. I had a great tax prof, loved the basic course, and took another tax course beyond that (and loved it, too), but I am not convinced the course is necessary for everyone.

Part of this is a curricular design issue. The usual theory I hear is that people need some exposure to tax issues so that they can identify them, but I have never met a tax teacher who covers the course that way. They are preparing a few students for the advanced tax courses, and the students who are there just for basic exposure to the issues are cannon fodder.

I agree with the other three courses on the list: Business Associations, Evidence, and Remedies. They effect the law so pervasively that every student should take those courses. Remedies is a funny suggestion. Regrettably, not that many law schools even offer the course any more.

I would suggest that there is a second tier of courses that are not quite as critical as the three above but are still extremely valuable for general understanding of the law (and tend to be pretty useful on the bar exam as well). That group would consist of Commercial Law, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment (if taught separately from Constitutional Law), and Wills &Trusts.

I might also include Administrative Law and Tax with these courses. They have significant impact on many areas of law (even though they are generally ignored on bar exams), and the courses can be very valuable if taught well.

Finally, in addition to taking any course in which the professor's last name is Volokh, students should assuredly take every course in which the professor's first name is Stealth.
7.19.2006 2:00am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I would concur with all of your picks, and add criminal procedure. Not that most of us would ever get involved in criminal law, but I think that it is a must for practicing law. One reason is that there is always, even today, a chance that you will get stuck as a court appointed defense attorney. I remember a decade or so ago, a tax attorney here in CO refused such an appointment based on his total lack of training in that area of the law. He was ultimately disciplined by the CO Supreme Court over his refusal. It is just one of those things that comes with practicing law. Obviously, in most cities, there are guys standing in line for these appointments. But outside there, it is still possible to get such an appointment, at least in a lot of states.

Besides, you never know when you are going to run into a legal problem with criminal overtones. As a patent attorney, I have been in court a couple of times on minor criminal things, representing, for example, the son of one of my secretaries. Better me than no one.

Remedies and Evidence are clearly necessary. Of course, I am a bit prejudiced here, as Evidence was one of two classes that I Am Jured in law school. At a minimum, you need a good understanding of the ins and outs of hearsay. Both of these classes you use indirectly throughout law - I have needed both on a frequent basis even as a patent attorney.

I am not sure if all criminal attorneys need corporations, but I think everyone else does. After all, most of us spend our lives working with or for them. I didn't get that much out of the course, because by the time I was in law school, I already had an MBA. But most law students are not so unfortunate.

I would vote for tax law too. Yes, I know that you can hire a tax attorney or accountant. But realistically, it does help, at least personally, to have a decent idea of how the tax system works. Besides, again, just like with corporations, it is hard to get away from tax implications. What it has done for me mostly has been to let me know when to look for outside help. In other words, being able to recognize tax questions (and, no, I don't try to answer them).

I can't think of anything else, except, as noted, unless the prof has a last name of Volokh.
7.19.2006 2:00am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
LOL. This so hits home. Earlier in my life, I had a very successful career as an electronics engineer. Now, at midlife, I am returning to school, with a new career path: biochemical engineering.

But I find that I had so targeted my education, back in my 20's, that I need to take both freshman level biology, and chemistry.
7.19.2006 2:03am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I disagree with a 1st Amdt. class. Yes, I took one, but that was because I was aiming at computer law, and saw some relevance. But I think that the average attorney can survive his entire career without one. Indeed, my father practiced 47 years and never really faced a 1st Amdt. question.

I also very happily skipped wills and trusts. Ditto for family law. One of my profs would give us all a list of the courses she thought we should all take, and it included a bunch of these. Partly, it was to prepare for the bar exam. Well, Bar/Bri did a great job there - I was able to learn all that I needed, without wasting my time on courses I would never need or use (well, I did get divorced three years after law school - but I hired a divorce attorney for that, just like I hire one for wills, trusts, and estates).

My problem in law school was that there just wasn't enough time to take all the courses that I wanted to take and thought that I might find useful in my career. I did take a couple that were an entire waste - like arbitration, but I think that was more a function of the prof than the subject matter.

Oh, I haven't seen administrative law come up yet. It was one of those classes that I hated, yet I appreciate having taken it. Of course, as a patent attorney, I have to deal with administrative agencies more than most attorneys do. But it is a different way of thinking, and the trend for a long time has been for for administrative agencies to become ever more important.

Finally, most of us hated professional responsibility, but, again, I think it a must. I just don't think that you get a true appreciation for the requirements of practicing law in the MPRE prep classes. You may be able to pass the MPRE, but there is more to practicing law than that.
7.19.2006 2:12am
William Baude (mail) (www):
And what about those of us who attend Law Schools that don't teach remedies?
7.19.2006 2:28am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
I knew suggesting First Amendment would draw fire. If Constitutional Law is critical and the First Amendment is the capstone of constitutional rights, it follows that every lawyer should understand the First Amendment. It is by far the most litigated area of Constitutional Law (viewing Criminal Procedure as a completely severed field now), and the potential to get enmeshed in First Amendment issues far exceeds other questions that arise in the Constitutional Law course. I understand why First Amendment is separated from the rest of Constitutional Law (the field is huge, and First Amendment issues are the most diffcult and the most easily separated). But none of that reduces the importance of understanding the First Amendment.
7.19.2006 2:31am
KW (mail):
I like the list you've compiled. I think it breaks down some heirarchically -- Business Associations is more important than Tax -- but it's a nice core package.

Two others I would include: Trusts and Estates, and some kind of Intellectual Property course (probably copyright). IP gets a lot of discussion lately (and is just getting more in recent years). T&E is useful in a lot of ways -- it may be the topic you're most likely to be asked about by family and friends; it's useful for one's own personal life; it potentially affects a number of clients and cases.
7.19.2006 2:33am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
Professional Responsibility probably should go on the list. It probably was excluded, as were the traditional first year courses, because it, too, is required at just about every law school in the country. That said, the quality of instruction in Professional Responsibility tends to be horrific.
7.19.2006 2:34am
Iwazaru (www):
As a student who plans to take Con Law II with a professor named Volokh this coming fall, I would like to point out that Remedies isn't being offered by UCLA in either semester this coming school year.
7.19.2006 2:37am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
William -- Good question. I don't know that I have a very good answer. Maybe someone who teaches in the field can give a better shot at this. I believe that Remedies will get some coverage in Commercial Law and Creditor's Rights. A Complex Litigation class could touch on some of this as it explores various forms of class actions. I am sure there are other courses, but none come to mind this late at night.
7.19.2006 2:42am
getloose (mail):
Federal Courts should be on the list. Every lawyer needs a well-grounded understanding of our federal system.
7.19.2006 3:09am
steve k:
So no one thinks much of "non-law" law classes such as history of law or jurisprudence.
7.19.2006 3:21am
The Voice of Reason (mail):
Feminist jurisprudence. So you can learn how to identify women who won't make good wives.
7.19.2006 3:24am
UMNlawstudent (mail):
Statutory interpretation.
7.19.2006 3:27am
Andrew F (mail) (www):
I would just like to concur with this list and add my two cents. I think (as UMNlawstudent mentioned) that a statutory interpretation class is great. I could be wrong, but it seems that no matter what area of law you go into, you will deal with statutes or codes at some point. Thus, it's important to know how to read and understand them. This is probably even more important for litigators who need to know what arguments to muster to have a statute construed in the desired manner.
7.19.2006 3:40am
Cornellian (mail):
For any aspiring litigator: Federal Courts - there is no way you want your first exposure to this stuff to be on the job when you're writing a memo on a deadline.

Admin law for everyone - Regulations are far more pervasive and have a far greater impact on people's everyday lives than statutes do.

Evidence - even if you're sure you're going to be a transaction lawyer, you need to understand attorney client privilege and understand it well.
7.19.2006 3:45am
Arvin (mail) (www):

Federal Courts should be on the list. Every lawyer needs a well-grounded understanding of our federal system.

I'm not quite sure even every LAW PROFESSOR or JUDGE has a well-grounded understanding of our federal system ;)

Though I will say that my own professor, Gary Rowe, has a superb understanding of it, and that if you DO get someone who understands the complexities AND is able to explain them, Federal Courts can be one of the most interesting classes in law school. As well as classes taught by Volokh(s), of course.

Plus it's surprisingly useful for the Bar Exam. Questions about standing and ripeness and mootness are easy, as are eleventh amendment problems.
7.19.2006 5:06am
Good luck finding a remedies class in today's lawschool curriculum. I fear it has had to give way to make room for what my contracts professor called "Law and the Banana"--useless electives and seminars that are what teh teachers want to each but not what the students need to take.
7.19.2006 6:14am
o' connuh j.:
Jurisprudence? :-)
7.19.2006 6:44am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Does it really matter what courses you take since law school is so loosely coupled to actual practice? For example evidence. One would think evidence is a foundational subject. The problem is a lot of judges don't understand evidence all that well. There is an amusing anecdote in Irving Younger's book on Hearsay. Younger asked a well-respected judge how he decides hearsay objections. Simple says the judge, I just over rule all of them, and I've never been reversed on appeal.
7.19.2006 6:59am
John Steele (mail):
I'm sorry to hear such negative comments about PR classes. It can be great fun for the students and it's certainly a necessity (not merely because it's required).

A course on Legislation ought to be just as mandatory as Torts, Property, Contracts, etc. The class would include legislative drafting and statutory interpretation.
7.19.2006 4:09pm
DJ (mail):
I'd strike tax from the list, but only because I never took it.

I found my statutory interpretation class to be one of the most valuable.
7.19.2006 4:30pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
Being knee-deep in BarBri right at this moment myself, I'd have to say that taking bar-oriented classes isn't a waste of time. It's better to be reminded of something than try to learn in in 3 hours. Besides, what's so fascinating that you just have to take it in your 3rd year?

Re: Law and the Banana. I can say without revealing any confidential information from my very short stint in government that the US takes banana terrorism (the terroristic destruction of bananas) very seriously. Some South American narco-gangs are well-known for it.
7.19.2006 4:40pm
JohnO (mail):
I agree with the votes for Federal Courts or, as my law school called it, Federal Jurisdiction. I will say that an overriding principle should be to take classes with the best teachers. The whole "learning to think like a lawyer" thing sounds corny, but it's largely true. I learned the most valuable stuff from courses with good teachers, regardless of the subject matter.
7.19.2006 4:47pm
Buttercup (mail):
I would add a course on Commercial Credit/UCC which is helpful in both litigation and transactional practice, and, like tax, gives extensive, practical experience in working with complex codes.
7.19.2006 5:05pm
Harriet Miers' Law Partner:
Ditto on Legislation and Admin Law.

Also, if you plan to be a business attorney, a land use/local government class would be a nice addition...every business, large or small, has at least one land use issue during its existence.

Finally, I would recommend a legal history course focused on either American or English legal history. It really gives you a good perspective on the development of the law which helps you to make sense of everything else.
7.19.2006 5:37pm
jimbino (mail):
I found my first-year classes so stimulating that I came away with the opinion that they ought to be an essential part of any liberal education. Apart from the elective seminars, most of my classes in the second and third year were as boring as hell, so much so that I effectively stopped attending classes, even though the school had by then given me a scholarship for being Hispanic. Of course, I never desired to become a lawyer.
7.19.2006 6:14pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
If you plan to practice in California and want to pass its bar exam, I would recommend taking Community Property, which is not very intuitive nor easily mastered during the BarBri course. I would skip tax, in fact, for it.
7.19.2006 6:18pm
Besides the requirements, I'd recommend Federal Courts and Evidence (which was required for me). I'd also recommend that a law student learn the basics of civil rights (1981, 1983), and employment law/discrimination (Title VII, ADA, ADEA, etc). With more than a third of the federal docket being employment related matters, most new law school grads will work at a firm that handles at least some of that type of work.
7.19.2006 6:49pm
Sailorman (www):
I'd drop tax and add a UCC course. I think it's much more likely that folks will run into a contract issue that requires familiarity with the UCC than that they will need to give tax advice--there are always specialized tax folks floating around when you need them :)
7.19.2006 7:02pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I'll second the folks that said Administrative Law, but mostly I'm posting to say I'm shocked nobody has mentioned any kind of clinic. Actually dealing with a client or two, preparing examination and cross-examination, introducing evidence, responding to questions from judges or ALJs, -- heck, even figuring out where to stand and how to file things -- is all very useful.
7.19.2006 7:12pm
Unfair Trade - Whether you are litigating or transacting, you will likely run across biz torts, trademark, FTC, or sate law trade secrets.

Legal Drafting - very necessary.
7.19.2006 8:57pm
Pub Editor (mail):
I agree that everyone should take Intro Tax (so that you know when to call a tax lawyer). Evidence is a must, and I might add Trial Practice (which at my school is a prereq for several clinics and externships). Admin Law is good because many lawyers will practice before or deal with agencies at some point (Social Security Administration, Veteran's Administration, Patent and Trademark Office, EPA, NLRB, etc.).

I took a Contract Drafting seminar last year and found it useful. (It amazes most non-lawyers when you tell them that it is possible to spend two semester studying Contracts 1L year without ever looking at a contract.)

My Contract Drafting professor recommended that everyone who plans to do anything related with real estate should take Environmental Law so that he or she could counsel clients as to their responsibilities.

As for Remedies, doesn't that strike anyone as a recap of things we learned in various other courses, like Torts and Civ Pro? Does it really merit a full semester?

Professional Responsibility/Legal Ethics should be a week-long seminar in the summer just after exams or before classes start again.

Business Associations/Corporations is key. Does no one recommend Commercial Law?
7.19.2006 9:40pm
UMN Law Student 2 (mail):
These classes are all important, but does anyone else have the problem that their law school schedules them all at the same time? U Minn is awful for that - I struggled to find classes to take because all of the "core" classes were scheduled in the same time slot last semester, and the same thing happened this upcoming semester. Apparently no prof wants to teach at a time other than 11:15 or 1:25. Is it really that 9 am is too early to teach?
7.19.2006 10:49pm
Can't agree enough with the recomendation for tax (says the accountant/attorney). Almost anythign you do touches on taxation in some way. Forming business entities? Better consider the tax consequences. Litigating a case? Your client will want to know whether the settlement/awars will be taxed, and how. Family law? Divorce decrees must take tax into account. Estate planning? That's 90% tax. Criminal? Many pleas bargains of white collar crimes have paying tax on the illicit gains as part of the deal. Transactional law? Every transaction has tax consequences. Real estate? Your client needs to know how to structure the deal so as to minimize tax.

As a practicing attorney/accountant, I find that I frequently run into problems that clients have because their attorney didn't know the tax consequences of something, or ther accountant didn't know the legal consequences, and the two never speak to one another.
7.19.2006 11:23pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Individual Income Tax should definitely be on the list, even for litigators, because a lot of decisions you make in litigation (especially regarding settlements) should be made with tax consequences in mind.

I didn't see where anyone had mentioned Wills &Trusts, which I think is pretty important if you can fit it in (or whatever the classes are called at your school). It's tested on most bar exams and the rules surrounding wills especially tend to be counterintuitive.

No student should ever take any kind of legal writing class that isn't required. You're going to have to unlearn it anyway once you start practicing.

I absolutely recommend Commercial Law (but then, I would) including Articles 3, 4 &9 of the UCC at least. Possibly a sales course covering 2 &2A as well. 5 &7 will probably be covered in the Commercial Law course to the extent they need to be.

I think Remedies is important for those schools that offer it (it might also be called Equity) just because torts, contracts &property don't always do a good job explaining remedies in detail.

My experience was that trial classes and things like that were basically useless. Even my clinic wasn't very useful (but I did it *after* having worked at the PD's office, so it was very remedial IMO. If I hadn't had that experience, it might not have been). Still, things like trial techniques and lawyering skills were widely held to be joke classes at my school.

Professional Responsibility is a total joke. It is the most useless class I took in law school. You can pass the MPRE by reading through the rules of professional conduct twice. 42 hours of PR instruction (3 hour class) is just damned silly for a subject that boils down to (1) don't be an idiot and (2) don't screw your clients, literally or figuratively. If it weren't required, no one would ever waste time on it.
7.20.2006 12:25am
Jason Fliegel (mail):
I'm surprised I haven't seen antitrust mentioned.
7.20.2006 1:36am
patrick (mail):
Legislation would be nice, it would help with statutory construction. I also like Advanced Legal Research, but I'm not terribly objective about it.
7.20.2006 9:53am
Stuart Buck (mail) (www):
I'll second those who mentioned the UCC -- you'll have to learn that stuff when studying for the bar anyway, and it's not exactly intuitive. A law school class would have been useful. Also, I agree with those who mentioned Administrative Law -- much modern federal law is produced by administrative agencies, such that most lawyers are likely to run into administrative law sooner or later.
7.20.2006 12:03pm
Randy R. (mail):
I would include crim law and landlord/tenant law, wills and trusts, and property law.

Why? Because whenever you go to a cocktail party and introduce yourself as a lawyer, someone will ALWAYS ask you a legal question about some trouble they are having. If you say, I don't know, they will suspect you are lying.

Which, actually, is not a bad idea, since I end up giving more free advice than I care to.....
7.20.2006 1:18pm
Justin (mail):
I disagree with much on this list - corporations, really? Why?

Remedies would be a good class, though that can be learned on the job (I never took that class).

My list would be the following:

Legislation, Administrative Law, Evidence, some upper level constitutional law class (preferrably with a focus on the Articles section, rather than the Amendments section), and at least one comparative law class. I'd also suggest state and local law, criminal procedure, and federal courts or federal jurisdiction.

And seminars. Multiple ones. Learn to write.
7.20.2006 3:12pm
Justin (mail):
The UCC's importance really depends on the type of law you aer going into. Corporations, real estate, etc. - if you know what law you want to go into, taking those classes that give you the background help. But black letter law can be learned on the job - I'd suggest courses that teach you how to think about more general concepts. That's why I'm surprised corporations is on the list, and am somewhat indifferent as to tax.

Of course, if you don't take a legislation class, taking tax helps to the degree its all statutory interpretation.
7.20.2006 3:14pm
Administrative Law
7.20.2006 3:42pm
jallgor (mail):
I have been practicing for 8 years and can't really recall administrative law ever entering into my practice. For that matter how useful would a class on Legislation or Advanced Con Law be for most lawyers? I also can't conceive of a legal practice where some basic knowledge of the law surrounding business associations wouldn't be useful. Justin, I disagree with your "pick classes that teach you how to think" approach. I think the point here is to pick courses that will provide a lawyer with some foundational knowledge that will useful in all areas of their practice even if they are never able to focus enough on a particular area to truly learn the black letter law. For example, yes you can always research what fiduciary duties are owed to minority shareholders but it is nice to understand things like the difference bewtween common and preferred stock before you start that task. Some people know that stuff beofre they go to law school but many don't.
I agree with the person who added T&E to the package. Even if it never comes up in your practice (which it often does for many lawyers) it's a good thing to have. I also think Bankruptcy is important for both Litgators and Corproate folk.
7.20.2006 4:45pm
I hope it's not too much of a cop out for me to say that the law school classes that every student must take are those with the best professors. I don't mean this tongue-in-cheek. Rather, I found that in my experience in law school, the most valuable classes were those taught by great teachers, regardless of the subject matter because of how it got me to think critically, which in turn made it more enjoyable. For instance, I knew I would not be a criminal attorney, but took criminal law (which, believe it or not, was only an elective) because everyone raved about the professor. And it paid off, not because I became a criminal lawyer, but because I learned more valuable things about being a lawyer there than I did in my Section 1983/civil rights class (which did interest me more before the classes started but suffered from lower quality teaching).

Aside from the idea of taking classes just on the basis of the professors, I found that trial practice was a very valuable course. That is where I first learned how evidence rules actually work. It was taught by a trial court judge who was very good, and as we worked through the cases, she we leave the room open to objections from anyone, even if you were not at either counsel table.

I don't really think there is any one class that everyone should take because I think so many students genuinely know which general area of practice they will enter after law school by the time they are done with the first year or year and a half, so they can tailor their courses to that.
7.20.2006 5:01pm
Justin (mail):
jailgor - everything you mentioned are things you can pick up on the job in the simplist manner. You don't get 3 years where the whole purpose of law firm is to develop yourself. To waste it providing a knowledge base that will develop anyway on the broad points of corporate law (which is a joke anyway) seems like a huge waste.

But in a way, my advice is to seperate good lawyers from great lawyers, not average lawyers from bad lawyers. I don't know whether, if you lack the skills to pick up something as easy as corporations on the job, picking it up at law school will really give you a chance to hide what are some pretty obvious flaws in your ability to understand legal concepts in general.
7.21.2006 11:20am
I generally agree with Professor V, although I would add that from the perspective of one who has practiced 26 years, it doesn't make that much difference. I didn't take Evidence (thus becoming the only lawyer I know who didn't), and two of the three lowest grades I got were in Civil Procedure and Labor Law, yet I have enjoyed great success in my chosen field of employment litigation. (A lawyer I interviewed with my second year of law school, upon eliciting from me that my least favorite first-year class was Civ Pro, opined that trying to learn civil procedure by reading appellate opinions is like trying to play Monopoly without a board.)
7.21.2006 3:28pm