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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Some thoughts on Selecting Electives in Law School

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Professor Volokh had an intriguing post today, Law School Classes One Should Definitely Take If One Wants To Practice in the Area. It’s an open comment post and the commentary is intriguing. It made me think of my own particular view of how to choose classes.

Now a year and a half into this venture, I’m now in elective-land where I have no one to blame but myself for taking any class I end up suffering through. It’s not as liberating as you might suppose when you’re wading through the 1L core. It is, after all, still law school. So in true law school fashion I use a rough weighing system on three elements to decide what classes to take:

  1. 20% subject matter
  2. 30% sanity preserving schedule
  3. 50% professor.
  4. The subject matters very little to me. I put it at 20% because there are some courses I feel I absolutely must take – evidence, criminal procedure, etc, but aside from those, I care very little. This approach makes more sense once you admit to yourself that as a law student you simply haven’t got a clue, about most things really, but particularly what area you’re going to practice in. Alternately, if you absolutely know you’re going to be say, a patent attorney. Taking, say Animal Law instead of Patent Defense III may be one of your few remaining opportunities to develop something tolerable to talk about at cocktail parties.

    Creating a sanity preserving schedule matters a little more, and applies across the board. As an evening student this is paramount for me. It’s particularly important to check the schedule of your finals. My school publishes the date and time for finals well ahead of registration. The goal is to give yourself a few days between each one to focus on the subject and for your mind to suppress the awful memories of the previous experience sufficiently to do it again.

    The biggest factor for me is the professor. It’s important that the prof loves his or her subject matter. This may seem odd since I don’t consider my own liking of the subject matter to be very important at all, but a professor teaching in an area they’re not that interested in or have become burnt out on is lethal. Other than that I find it helps if they’re a bit scary, Kingsfield scary. Ideally it’s someone with high standards, who is demanding enough to get me to stretch, and who has the mental acuity to show me what I didn’t have the capacity to know I didn’t know.

    This last aspect – the ability to point out succinctly and unequivocally the holes in a student’s understanding – is a rare and valuable attribute. Prof. Sanders, one of my favorite professors at Houston, is the most gracious of socratic assassins. He would ask you the issue and listen politely while you fumbled around for it. Once stated, he would ask you to pick a side and argue in support of it. He would then proceed to surgically pick apart your argument until you realized the folly of your choice. He would then offer to allow you to take the other side, for which he had just given three or four convincing arguments of his own. You learned to accept this second challenge with foreboding, because you knew he was about to obliterate your arguments again with the same side with which you had just proven so inept. The fundamental lesson of this exchange was to grow skeptical of your certainty, to test it in every conceivable fashion, to have good, solid reasons for every assertion. While Sanders was remarkable for his magnanimity and how oddly pleasant he made the mental ass-whipping you were receiving, there are a number of profs at Houston who are equally adept. When you find these people take every class from them you can.

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Category: advice to law students, law school, university of houston

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