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Law School First Year Curriculum

A law school is an institution where students obtain a professional education in law.  In the United States, this happens after the student first obtains an undergraduate degree.

Law schools in the U.S. issue the Juris Doctor degree (J.D.), which is a professional doctorate.  For most practitioners, this is also a terminal degree. 

Other degrees that are awarded include the Master of Laws (LL.M.) and the Doctor of Juridical Science (J.S.D. or S.J.D.) degrees.  Most law schools are colleges, schools, or other units within a larger post-secondary institution, such as a university.  Legal education is very different in the United States from that in many other parts of the world.

Based on their year of study, law students are referred to as 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls.  However, there are some law schools that still follow the tradition of referring to students as Juniors, Middlers and Seniors.  The American Bar Association (ABA) of the United States does not mandate a particular curriculum for 1Ls.  ABA Standard 302(a) (1) requires only the study of “substantive law” that will lead to “effective and responsible participation in the legal profession.”  However, most law schools have their own mandatory curriculum for 1Ls which typically includes:

  • Civil procedure (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure)
  • Constitutional law (United States Constitution)
  • Contracts (Uniform Commercial Code and Restatement (Second) of Contracts)
  • Criminal law (General common law and Model Penal Code)
  • Property (General common law and Restatement of Property
  • Torts (General common law and Restatement (Second) of Torts)
  • Legal research (Use of a law library, LexisNexis, and Westlaw)
  • Legal writing (including legal citation in Bluebook format)

These basic courses are intended to provide an overview of the broad study of law.  Not all ABA-approved law schools offer all of these courses in the 1L year; for example, many schools do not offer constitutional law and/or criminal law until the second and third years. Most schools also require Evidence but rarely offer the course to first year students.  Some schools combine legal research and legal writing into a single year-long “lawyering skills” course, which may also include a small oral argument component.

After the first year, law students are generally free to pursue different fields of legal study, such as administrative law, corporate law, international law, admiralty law, intellectual property law, and tax law.

The ABA also requires that all students at ABA-approved schools take an ethics course in professional responsibility.  Typically, this is an upper-level course; most students take it in the 2L year.  This course is added by the ABA to demonstrate that the legal profession can regulate itself and to prevent direct federal regulation of the profession.

To ensure that students’ research and writing skills do not deteriorate, the ABA has added an upper division writing requirement.  Law students must take at least one course, or complete an independent study project, as a 2L or 3L that requires the writing of a paper for credit. Most law courses are more about learning how to analyze legal problems, read cases, distill facts and apply law to facts.  However, clinical education is very important in law schools.  

Many law students participate in internship programs during their course of study.  In some schools, students have the opportunity to pursue co-operative education programs during their legal education careers.

The emphasis in law schools is rarely on the law of the particular state in which the law school sits, but on the law generally throughout the country.  Although this makes studying for the bar exam more difficult since one must learn state-specific law, the emphasis on legal skills over legal knowledge can benefit law students not intending to practice in the same state they attend law school.

Inside Law School First Year Curriculum