Thoughts on Course Selection
Here’s the good news—it is hard to make bad choices. The life of the law tends to be broad and encompasses many different areas of knowledge. You will learn something from each of your classes, and may find that you excel in courses you did not expect to like and vice versa, so try not to over-think the process.
This all said, there are some useful things to focus on when choosing a series of courses. Law school seems long when you begin, but after the required courses of first year, four semesters pass by more quickly than you can imagine. We often hear from students that they just did not get a chance to take everything they wanted to!
Here are a couple of broad ideas you may want to keep in mind as you are deciding what to take:
Think about balancing breadth and depth
There are many wonderful courses to explore, many interesting subject areas, and a lot you will want to learn. You’ll get all sorts of advice about the many things that would be useful to you if you are interested in a particular subject area, or want to practice in a particular area. You will want to take a broad sampling of classes in different areas, but you may find it useful to drill down a bit in an area of particular interest – so, think of taking two or three courses in a particular subject matter – perhaps a large doctrinal course, followed by a smaller seminar. This should give you a sense of what it means to delve more deeply into an area. Remember, though, not to concentrate too much in one particular area. You may have some idea of what you would like to study or a particular career path, but these things can change, and you want to retain some breadth in your studies.
What about those big doctrinal courses?
You may hear people talk about courses you “must” take before you leave law school – and then give you widely divergent ideas about what those may be. Although you are not “required” to take the following courses, a number of them come up again and again as prerequisites to other courses or as important introductions to broad areas of the law. Some of the courses most commonly suggested include Corporations, Federal Income Taxation, Evidence, Administrative Law, Family Law and something in the area of Intellectual Property. If you are interested in applying for judicial clerkships, then you should considering taking Federal Courts. Many would suggest taking at least one course that involves a particular governmental agency, since many areas of law involve agency regulation in one way or another. In addition to Tax, you might consider courses, for example, in the areas of Labor and Employment Law, Environmental Law, or Securities Law. Finally, you might want to consider taking a course that examines the social or political impact of the law on a particular group or aspect of society.
DO SOME WRITING!
Take several courses during your upper years that involve significant pieces of writing. Legal writing is a most important skill, and the more practice you have at this, the better you will be. Doing a serious piece of writing serves many different purposes. It gives you a chance to really think through a particular legal issue in depth, which is a good way to sharpen your legal analytical skills. It is often a good way to get to know and interact with a faculty member (more on that later). It can serve as a writing sample if you need one in later years (for example, if you apply for a clerkship). It can help you fulfill requirements such as Major Writing and Minor Writing, and for those of you on journals, it can be the basis for a Note, and so on. It is also excellent practice for a wide and diverse range of legal (and other) careers. So write!
But...balance exams with writing
All of your courses will have some sort of evaluative exercise, with the two most common being a large exam and a paper of significant length. You probably do not want to have to take five large exams, and you probably do not want to write five long papers. Know yourself – if you lean one way or another, play to your strengths, and do not let the final evaluative exercises be determinative, but do think about it ahead of time when planning a mix of courses.
Do something experiential
There is a lot to learn, and lot of fun to be had, in actually doing what lawyers do. So, look into experiential courses, which range from clinics and externships, where you’ll be doing legal work, to skills-based courses. These include such courses as the Negotiations Workshop, the Diversity and Innovation seminar, Trial Practice, Advocacy in Theory and Practice, and the Deals Workshop, where you’ll get to practice legal skills and think about the law in a different way. You do not want to abandon the important theoretical framework of the law either, but dipping your toe (or your entire foot) into the work that lawyers do will enrich your educational experience and help prepare you for life in practice.
One of the most important things to focus on during your time at Columbia Law School is building relationships with faculty members. It will help you get the most out of your time here, allow you to deeply delve into a particular interest and build relationships with someone who can serve as a recommender during law school or in the future (e.g., if you are considering applying for clerkships), and provide advice and a useful perspective on the world beyond law school. One of the most straightforward ways to do this is to take small classes, such as seminars or colloquia, in a faculty member’s area of interest. In particular, focus on building relationships with full-time faculty, who often teach multiple classes in related areas, and are often doing research and writing in interesting areas. Try to follow up on a class, with visits to office hours, offers to do research or writing in their area, and perhaps, multiple classes with a particular professor.
Don’t be afraid to take something just because it sounds interesting
There may be particular classes that sound enticing because they are with great teachers, or because they cover a subject area that sounds interesting. Although it is not a focus of yours nor an area that you think you will use in some practical way, take it anyway! The intellectual exploration piece of law school cannot be underestimated. In addition, many people have found that taking a class with a wonderful teacher, regardless of subject matter, was one of the wisest decisions they made in choosing courses. Consider taking a new course or a course with a visiting professor. One of the things that make Columbia Law School great is that we attract distinguished visiting faculty from around the world.
Remember the perspective that adjunct faculty bring
Practitioners bring a unique perspective to their areas of expertise, and it can be especially useful to take a course with an adjunct professor in an area in which you may practice. They are also useful to turn to for advice as you navigate your career choices.
Now that you have read what Student Services has to say, listen to what the faculty and current practitioners say about course selection. Choose a link below to listen to a podcast.