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The First–Year Curriculum
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The first-year curriculum is the brick and mortar of your law school education. No matter what school you attend, you're likely to take the following courses.
From the Middle French for "injury," torts are wrongful acts, excluding breaches of contract, that are actionable under civil law. Students of torts might not be surprised to hear that the Latin root of the word means "twisted." Torts can range from the predictable to the bizarre, from Dog Bites Man to Man Bites Dog and everything in between. The study of torts is the study of civil-court cases with the goal of understanding the changeable legal rationale behind decisions pertaining to the extent of, and limits on, the civil liability of one party for harm done to another.
You'll learn about the primary torts you can sue people for under American law. Here's a free acronym for you: FITTED CAB. It stands for False Imprisonment, Trespass (to land), Trespass (to chattel), (intentional infliction of) Emotional Distress, Conversion, Assault, and Battery. You'll also learn more than any human being should ever know about negligence.
Fairly self-explanatory, it seems. Sign on the dotted line and--presto!--you've got a contract. Well, not exactly. Contractual relationships are far more varied and complicated than that, as two semesters of contracts will teach you. Again through the study of past court cases, you will follow the largely unwritten law governing the system of conditions and obligations a contract represents, as well as the legal remedies available when contracts are breached.
If contracts and torts teach you what lawyers do in civil court, then civil procedure teaches you how they do it. "Civ Pro" is the study of the often dizzyingly complex rules that govern not only who can sue whom, but also how, when, and where they can do it. This is not merely a study of legal protocol, for issues of process have a significant indirect effect on the substance of the law. Rules of civil procedure govern the conduct of both the courtroom trial and the steps that might precede it: discovery, pleading, pretrial motions, etc.
Like so much U.S. law, the laws governing the purchase, possession, and sale of property in the U.S. often date back to the English common law. You may never own a piece of land, but your life will inevitably and constantly be affected by property laws. Anyone interested in achieving an understanding of broader policy issues will appreciate the significance of this material. Many property courses will emphasize, to varying degrees, economic analysis of property law.
Even if you become a criminal prosecutor or defender, you will probably never prosecute or defend someone charged with the crimes you will be exposed to in this course. Can a man who shoots the dead body of someone he believes to be alive be charged with attempted murder? What if someone forced him to do so at gunpoint? What if they were both on drugs -- or had really rough childhoods? Nowhere will the Socratic dialogue be taken to such extremes as in your crim. class, and criminal law professors are notorious for their ridiculously convoluted exam questions.
As close to a history class as you will take in your first year, con. law will emphasize issues of government structure (e.g., federalism and separation of powers) and individual rights (e.g., personal liberties, freedom of expression, property protection). Nearly every law school now offers advanced con. law courses that focus on special areas like civil rights or affirmative action.
One of the few twentieth-century improvements on the traditional first-year curriculum that has taken hold nearly everywhere, this course travels under various aliases, such as legal research and writing or elements of the law. This class will be your smallest, and possibly your only refuge from the Socratic method. Methods courses are often taught by junior faculty or even by second- or third-year students, and are designed to help you acquire fundamental skills in legal research, analysis, and writing.
The Methods course may be the least frightening you face, but it can easily consume an enormous amount of time. This is a common lament, particularly at schools where very few credits are awarded for the Methods course.
In addition to these course requirements, many law schools require 1Ls to participate in a moot-court exercise. As part of this exercise, students--sometimes working in pairs or even small groups--must prepare briefs and oral arguments for a mock trial (usually appellate). This requirement is often tied in with the Methods course so that those briefs and oral arguments will be well researched--and graded.