Law School: Substance or Skills


In response to my post on lower-tier law schools being the better bet for aspiring solos, law student Zeb wrote:

I’m a second year student at the University of Baltimore, a supposedly 4th tier school (that just happens to supply the bulk of trial lawyers in Baltimore). Mr. Bennett’s intial post has inspired me to post this comment seeking advice. I have an interest in a criminal defense career. Given the nature of the law school course requirements and scheduling, it looks like I’ll have to make choices between taking substantive criminal law electives (Constitutional Criminal Procedure II, Federal Criminal Practice, Forensic Evidence, Sentencing and Plea Bargaining Seminar), and legal skills classes (trial advocacy, advanced trial ad, bench trial ad, appellate ad, litigation process, criminal law clinic , etc.). Which type of course is more valuable–the substantive course or the skills course?

My instincts tell me that one can learn the substantive law via independent study, and so I should load up on the more practical legal skills courses while making sure I take the not required but highly recommended bar-tested courses. Do you folks agree? If not, why not?

My sense is that Zeb is right, especially if the skills classes will teach practical criminal procedure (not what the books say, but how things really work in the local courthouses).

I know Señor Greenfield has written extensively about improving law school. But what advice do you guys have for future lawyers who want to extract as much as they can from law school in preparation for a criminal defense practice?

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0 responses to “Law School: Substance or Skills”

  1. I found my substantive law courses are harder to remember as years go by.The skills I learned in trial ad and in real trials, are an ongoing maturation process.

    Trial advocacy is a skill that can only be learned in trial.

    Trial experience is very hard to come by and it is your client who suffers from your lack thereof. Get as much as you can as soon as you can.

    The criminal clinic and trial ad courses seem to be the best way to go. Once you pass the bar I assume you can find relevant law on the pertinent issues.

    Being able to rattle of appellate decisions and penal code statutes is interesting, but not terribly useful in voir dire.

  2. I’ve got disagree just a tad. You need to have a firm general knowlege of basic constitutional and criminal law to have a clue what the issues are, where to look and how to formulate a general strategy.

    The specifics change over time, and nobody can remember every detail, which is why they make law books (at least they used to make law books). But a solid general knowledge in substantive law is necessary as a foundation.

  3. I going to agree with Greenfield. While I think the trial classes are great experience, and in serve you much better both short term and long term, you still have to know the law.

    A great example is an attorney I know who, while a very good trial attorney (I’m sure in no small part because of her trial ad classes) during a trial in which she was “performing” well, responded to a hearsay objection with “but the statement was voluntary.”

    If you don’t have a good knowledge of the law, you’ll only go so far.

  4. The substantive classes listed by Zeb all strike me as “electives” in that they’re not the basics. As far as substantive classes go, you’ve got to get your procedure and your evidence and your con law. But if you’ve taken those classes and feel comfortable, you’ll learn the additional stuff. But if, for example, you’re still iffy on evidence I’d suggest taking an additional class.

    I didn’t have a wide variety of trial ad classes but I did get on my school’s team as soon as possible. I was much more comfortable training with fellow students and learning from professors that I knew than if I’d been plunked down in a courtroom without experience. The feedback I got in competitions was incredibly useful, but most important was the confidence you gain. That is essential in criminal defense.

  5. I think the single most important class in law school for a aspiring trial lawyer is evidence. If your command of the rules of evidence is superior to your opponent’s, you are already more than half-way to a win. I would also strongly recommend a trial internship with a public defender or prosecutor’s office – that way you can get some live trials in front of real judges and jurys, with an experienced lawyer watching over you, before you are turned loose on the world.

  6. Reading this post and the comments that followed reminds me of something that my legal writing professor said one day: “This is law school, not lawyer school.”
    There’s much to be said about the fact that law school is very academic in its nature and that any practical skill learned is often wholly by accident or through the efforts of some in the faculty to help students bridge the gap between school and the real world. The ABA holds the key to accrediting schools. Perhaps they need to rethink their stance on what constitutes core curricula

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