Choosing Elective Courses
A number of factors should inform your curricular decisions, including: (1) preparing for the bar exam, (2) familiarizing yourself with the fundamentals of the substantive law in areas where you are likely to practice, (3) honing skills (writing, advocacy, negotiation, etc.) necessary to be an effective lawyer, and (4) satisfying your intellectual curiosity. There are no talismanic rules for choosing courses. Nevertheless, you need to select a balance of offerings that expose you to a variety of subjects and skills and give you the versatility demanded of lawyers. Do not be tempted to choose courses on the basis of the average grade of the course or scheduling convenience. While it may not seem so now, your time in law school is precious; you may well miss out on opportunities to become a well-rounded lawyer by choosing courses on such bases.
The Bar Exam
Obviously, passing the bar exam is critically important, but do not let the bar exam dominate your curricular choices. Law school is not an extended bar review course. That said, we provide below some basic information on the subject areas covered by the bar exams most of you will take, and then offer some bar-exam-related advice to students who performed poorly in their first-year courses.
The Multi-state Bar Exam (“MBE”), the 200-question multiple choice exam that comprises part of the bar exam of all states except Louisiana and the District of Columbia, tests on six major areas: Contracts, Torts, Real Property, Criminal Law/Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Evidence. Beginning with the February 2015 administration of the bar exam, a seventh subject matter – Civil Procedure – will be added to the exam. Subject matter outlines for the issues covered on the MBE are online at http://www.ncbex.org/assets/media_files/Information-Booklets/MBEIB2014.pdf.
Each student who has finished the required first-year curriculum has already covered three of the subjects somewhat completely, and two others (Criminal Law/Procedure and Constitutional Law) in significant part, leaving only Evidence and possibly Criminal Procedure to take as elective courses, to cover all the MBE subjects.
The essay portion of the New Jersey bar exam consists of seven essay questions. Six of the questions focus on one or more of the six MBE subjects (and generally do not require knowledge of local New Jersey law); the seventh question focuses on both federal and New Jersey civil procedure. The Bar Examiners have stated that the New Jersey essay questions “may be framed in the context of fact situations involving, and interrelated with, the following subjects: agency; conflicts of law; corporations; equity; family law; partnership; Uniform Commercial Code Articles 2 (Sales), 3 (Commercial Paper), and 9 (Secured Transactions); wills, trusts, and estates; zoning and planning; and disciplinary rules.” Accordingly, the Bar Examiners advise, “familiarity with the basic principles and concepts of those subjects may help the candidate in answering the questions.”
New York currently may test: Business Relationships (including agency, business corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships and joint venture); Civil Practice and Procedure (New York and Federal); Conflicts of Laws; New York and federal Constitutional Law; Contracts and Contracts Remedies; Criminal Law and Procedure; Evidence; Matrimonial and Family Law; Professional Responsibility; Real Property; Torts and Tort Damages, Trusts, Wills and Estates; and Uniform Commercial Code Articles 2, 3* and 9. Questions on the local portion of New York bar exam are generally based on New York law. The New York State Bar Examiners have provided a “content outline” at http://www.nybarexam.org/Content/ContentOutline.htm.
*Effective with the July 2014 bar exam, New York will no longer test UCC Article 3 – Negotiable Instruments – on the New York section of the bar exam. Effective with the February 2015 exam, Administrative Law will be added to the list of subject matters tested on the New York section of the bar exam.
Anticipated Area of Practice
Choosing some of your classes with an eye toward gaining substantive knowledge related to your anticipated area of practice is sensible. However, legal careers often follow quite unanticipated paths. Often opportunities will arise that take one into new and very different areas of practice. Much more often than you might imagine, lawyers find themselves making careers in areas they did not contemplate in law school. Thus, you should be very cautious about focusing too narrowly on a particular subject area.
Intellectual Curiosity (Seminars)
We mentioned intellectual curiosity as a factor in course selection. Such curiosity may carry students in various directions. We want to note here our interesting selection of seminars. As many of you know from your undergraduate education, seminars are small classes that proceed by discussion rather than lecture and often require the student to develop a topic of interest into a project or paper. Seminars are also more likely to be quite focused on areas of the faculty member’s current research or practice interest, and thus involve areas in which the faculty member is giving concentrated thought. You might do well to consider taking at least one or two such offerings.
Curricular Choices of Your Predecessors
The recent curricular choices made by students may provide you with a different and useful perspective. This chart represents the elective choices for traditional classroom courses made by students in classes of recent graduates. (Because transfer students sometimes arrive at Rutgers having already taken a core elective course such as Evidence, these percentages might slightly understate the number of students who actually took classes in certain subjects. In addition, this chart represents the combined choices of day and evening students, and a few of the courses are predominantly taken by one group or the other.) Of course, what students ACTUALLY take and what students SHOULD take is not the same thing. Permit us to offer the following observations.
Statute-Based Subjects. Students are often tempted to avoid statute-based courses, such as Federal Income Tax, Commercial Law, and Debtor-Creditor Law. Most practicing lawyers, however, will probably tell you that the great majority of legal work is done in areas governed by one or more comprehensive statutes. Accordingly, we firmly believe that law students do themselves a great disservice by avoiding “code based” courses. Perhaps the tendency to shy away from such courses reflects a perception that those courses are particularly difficult. However, you will almost inevitably confront statute-based areas in your practice. Avoiding such courses will leave you unprepared for legal practice, putting you in the unfortunate situation of having to figure out such statutes on the fly without the support of an academic setting, and when a great deal may be at stake. More generally, avoiding such courses will likely leave you with a distorted perception of the importance of the courts, in particular, that law is almost exclusively developed by courts and rarely in any meaningful way by legislatures and administrative agencies.
Skills Courses. You are now required to take one or more “skills” course, such as Negotiations, Trial Presentation, or Appellate Advocacy, among others. (Click here for full list.) Effective lawyering is measured not only by knowledge of substantive law, but by the skills and techniques necessary to put that knowledge to practical use. (And indeed, American Bar Association standards for law schools have recently been changed to provide that each student should receive “substantial instruction” in professional skills. While we have not yet formally established a professional skills course graduation requirement, students should give due weight to the ABA’s views on legal education.) Of course, our clinics also teach skills in a practical setting, and up to two-thirds of our students take at least one clinical course at some time before graduation. However, you should not take so many skills courses that you do not have an opportunity to take an array of substantive classes, as we fear some students have done.
Global and Transnational Courses. Increasingly, law is becoming a global and transnational discipline. We, therefore, encourage you to take one or more courses that approach law from that perspective. Our faculty has expertise in a range of particular areas of international law, e.g., International Trade, International Law, International Criminal Law, International Taxation, and International Protection of Human Rights.