Choosing Upper Level Courses
After the required courses in the first year, you have great freedom to choose upper level courses and activities that help you achieve your personal and professional goals. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore the curriculum both to determine your interests and to develop the necessary substantive knowledge and lawyering skills. The information that follows is intended to help you create a coherent academic program.
As you will see, it will be helpful to plan ahead. Some courses are prerequisites for specialized courses or clinics and you should take them early. Some courses are offered either every other semester or every other year, while others are offered every semester. Other courses may be offered during the summer. By thinking this through in advance, you can maximize your opportunities to custom-tailor your law school experience to prepare yourself to serve your clients and your community.
There are no precise rules for selecting upper level courses – and you will find that your professors, mentors, and classmates will disagree about what considerations are the most important. Here are some factors that you can use in combination to help you determine the broader outlines of your academic experience.
Choose basic courses that provide a broad education, help you determine your interests, and prepare you for advanced courses.
A broad understanding of the law is essential to practice, and it is important to get a legal education that introduces you to the legal concepts that structure our legal system. Clients will have concerns that are not confined to a single legal subject, and competent lawyers must recognize issues that are outside their specialties. Beyond the required courses, there are a number of courses that are important building blocks to your overall understanding of the law.
The building block courses can be broadly divided into the following areas: (1) Business, Corporate and Commercial; (2) Family Rights and Relationships; (3) U.S. Legal Institutions and Government Regulation; (4) Legal Processes; (5) Comparative and International Law; and (6) Perspectives. In choosing electives, think about taking courses from each of these basic areas. The courses listed are just examples – be sure to investigate the full course listings for available options. You will also notice that there are courses that fit into more than one category.
Business, Corporate and Commercial Law: The first-year courses of Contracts and Property Law are foundational to the study of business and commercial law. At the upper level, this group starts off with Business Enterprise, the fundamental overview of the state and federal law of business organizations. Take this course as soon as you are able, preferably in your second year. In addition, you should consider taking courses in commercial law (Sales, Payment Systems, and Secured Transactions), Real Property (Real Estate Transactions), Taxation (Income Taxation, Corporate Taxation), Antitrust Law, Intellectual Property, and Bankruptcy (Creditors’ Rights).
Family Rights and Relationships: Individuals and families are also important in the U.S. legal system. A number of basic law school courses provide information about their rights and responsibilities, including issues of wealth distribution. These courses include Trusts & Estates, Family Law, and Texas Matrimonial Property. Taxation issues affect individuals as well.
U.S. Legal Institutions and Government Regulation: As an attorney, you need to understand the fundamentals of how the legal system works. This entails understanding how the U.S. Constitution is structured and how the basic components of the government interact with each other and with other persons and entities. You begin your study of this subject in the required Constitutional Law courses. Other courses in this group include: Administrative Law, Legislation, Federal Courts, Immigration Law, Environmental Law, Employment Discrimination, Civil Rights Law, Health Law, and Constitutional Criminal Procedure.
Legal Processes: Attorneys should also be familiar with the means by which our legal system resolves disputes and enforces legal norms. You begin this process by taking the required first year courses in Civil Procedure. Electives in this area can provide a more sophisticated understanding of the processes and institutions of litigation (Texas procedure, Complex Litigation, Evidence, Federal Courts, and International Litigation & Arbitration) and alternative systems for resolving disputes.
Comparative and International Law: Cross-border and treaty issues arise in many areas of practice, particularly in a border state like Texas. A well-trained attorney should have familiarity with the basic principles of international law (both public and private), the methodology of comparative law, the mechanism of effective dispute resolution in an international setting, the role of international and regional organization in the global economic environment and the ways in which international issues arise in various areas of legal practice, in economic development and in legal reform. Basic courses in this group include: International Law, Comparative Law I, International Litigation & Arbitration, International Economic Law, Conflict of Laws, and International Human Rights.
Perspectives: A well-trained attorney reads broadly and has an understanding of the broader social context within which law operates. Courses in this group attempt to provide this context. Such courses include: Legal History; Critical Race Theory; Jurisprudence; Comparative Law; Economic Analysis of Law; Law & Science; Theories of Legal Interpretation; Women and the Law.
Choose a concentration of courses in one or more areas of law.
You may want to develop deeper knowledge in an area that particularly interests you and in which you would like to specialize in practice. Advanced courses teach advanced skills and deal with complex problems that aren’t taught in survey courses; this can make these classes particularly interesting and intellectually challenging. The next section of this guide describes academic components of some areas of expertise. Beware, however, of excessive specialization. Even specialists need to be familiar with a full range of legal issues, and the law will continue to change over time. It is impossible to foresee the changing patterns in the job market, and too much focus can limit your career flexibility.
Identify skills that you want to improve.
Another way to choose courses is to identify the skills that you will need in legal practice. The substantive law changes constantly, but the skills that you learn will last your whole career. Skills can be developed in courses that simulate legal practice (Trial Advocacy), in clinical experiences with real clients (Civil Clinic, Child Advocacy Clinic, Criminal Clinic, Trademark Clinic, Patent Clinic, Tax Clinic, Small Business Clinic), in externships, and in public service or other volunteer experiences – combining learning and community service. Consider courses that provide a wide range of practice skills such as advocacy, client counseling, written and oral communication, drafting, negotiation, mediation, and legal research.
Choose courses required for graduation and that will help you pass the bar examination.
Remember that, even after the first year, there are requirements for graduation; plan them into your remaining semesters. The question of how many bar preparation courses to take varies by student and depends in large part on your ability to learn large amounts of information quickly through bar review courses, on your comfort level with exams, and on a number of personal factors. For some students, bar preparation should be a smaller factor in selecting courses. On the other hand, you can approach the bar exam with greater confidence if you have had some exposure to the material during law school. In addition, students who have received below-average grades on law school exams will find it beneficial to take the basic courses on bar subjects to give them a firmer grounding in those areas. This can be time well spent, as many bar exam topics are fundamental components of the general practice of law. Students whose Grade Point Averages are 2.7 or less must consult with the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs before registration, and he may require those students to take up to three courses tested on the Texas bar examination. Law school courses that cover bar exam-related material are listed at http://www.law.smu.edu/Student-Affairs/Bar-Exam-Information/SMU-Course-Recommendations.aspx.
Develop an academic relationship with a faculty member through coursework.
Consider using some of your courses to help you develop relationships with one or more faculty members who will get to know you and your work, will be able to advise you, and can give you meaningful recommendations. You can get to know faculty by being an active participant in and outside of class, enrolling in smaller more specialized courses and seminars, visiting professors during office hours, or writing a directed research paper under a professor’s supervision.
If you design your curriculum with these principles in mind, in combination with your required courses, you should have a fairly rich and structured legal education. You should use your time in law school wisely to obtain as sophisticated an exposure to the subject of law as possible in order to develop the types of skills and information you will need for whatever you end up doing with your law degree.