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Law school is the term used in the United States to indicate an institution where future lawyers obtain legal degrees. Attendees are called law students. In the U.S. law is a graduate degree, which students embark upon only after completing an undergraduate degree in some other field; the undergraduate degree can be in any field. In most cases the degree granted by American law schools is the Juris Doctor, or J.D., degree, though some schools still award the LL.B. degree which is still common in other common law jurisdictions, mostly Commonwealth countries. Other degrees that are awarded include the Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) and the Doctor of Juridical Science degree (J.S.D.). A law school is usually an autonomous entity within a larger university and is considered to be a graduate or professional school program.
In other countries law programs are more completely integrated into the other university faculties, such as in Canada where they are often called a faculty of law. In most countries, law is an undergraduate degree and graduates of such a program are eligible to become lawyers by passing the country's equivalent of a bar exam. In such countries, graduate programs in law enable students to embark on academic careers or become specialized in a particular area of law.
In the United States, admission to a law school requires a bachelor's degree, a satisfactory undergraduate grade point average, and a satisfactory score on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Additional personal factors are evaluated through essays, short-answer questions, letters of recommendation, and other application materials. The standards for grades and LSAT scores vary from school to school. Highly-regarded law schools, among them Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Chicago, tend to accept applicants with LSAT scores over 170 and a GPA above 3.7. Numbers somewhat lower than these may also enable entry into such schools.
Individual factors are also very important, although applicants are virtually never asked to interview as part of the application process. Such factors are evaluated through other application materials, and while these factors can compensate for a low GPA and/or LSAT score, where they are weak they can also detract from high scores. Many law schools actively seek applicants from outside the traditional pool in order to boost campus diversity, both racial and economic. Most law schools now factor in extracurricular activities, work experience, and unique courses of study in their evaluation of applicants. A growing number of law school applicants have several years of work experience, and correspondingly fewer law students enter immediately after completing their undergraduate education.
Students considering law school should note that although law school tuition is notoriously high, it is not uncommon for law students to receive grants and scholarships, or more rarely complete tuition waivers, from their schools. While each school's financial aid system operates differently, there is a rule of thumb relating to GPA and LSAT scores: a student whose grades and LSAT are distinctly higher than those of most students admitted to a given school--in other words, a student who could get into a "better" school--has a good chance of being offered some kind of scholarship by the lower-ranked school.
In order to sit for the bar exam, the vast majority of state bar associations require that an applicant's law school must be approved by the American Bar Association. The ABA has promulgated detailed requirements covering every aspect of a law school, down to the precise contents of the law library.
California is the most famous exception to the rule. Its Committee of State Bar Examiners accredits many schools which would not qualify for ABA accreditation (due to low admission standards, lack of a full law library, or nonstandard academic calendar). Graduates of such schools can sit for the bar exam in California, and once they've passed that exam, a large number of states allow those students to sit for their bars, either immediately or after practicing for a certain number of years in California. California is also the first state to allow graduates of online law schools to take its bar exam.
Law students are referred to as 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls, based on their year of study. In the United States, the American Bar Association mandates a curriculum for 1Ls that includes:
- Civil procedure
- Constitutional law
- Criminal law
- Decision making
- Legal research
- Legal writing
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; a significant number of schools make constitutional law and/or criminal law required upper-level courses. Some schools roll legal research and legal writing into a single year-long "lawyering skills" course, which may also include a small oral argument component.
The ABA also requires that all students at ABA-approved schools take a course in professional responsibility. The course is typically an upper-level course, most often taken in the 2L year. This requirement was added after the Watergate scandal, which seriously damaged the public image of the profession, because of the fact that President Richard Nixon and most of his alleged cohorts were lawyers. The ABA hoped to demonstrate that the legal profession could regulate itself (and also hoped to prevent direct federal regulation of the profession).
As of 2004, 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 as a 2L or 3L that requires the writing of a paper for credit.
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. They may also take clinics, which offer hands-on experience providing free legal services to the surrounding community.
Many law students participate in internship programs during their course of study. Some become assistants ("clerks") for local, state, and federal judges; others work in law firms, corporations, or legal aid clinics.
Most law school education is based on standards developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard Law School during the mid-1800s. Professors generally lead in-class debates over the issues in selected court cases, compiled into "casebooks" for each course. Most law professors choose not to lecture extensively, and instead use the Socratic method to force students to teach each other based on their individual understanding of legal theory and the facts of the case at hand. Examinations usually entail interpreting the facts of a hypothetical case, determining how legal theories apply to the case, and then writing an essay. This process is intended to train students in the reasoning methods necessary to interpret theories, statutes, and precedents correctly, and argue their validity, both orally and in writing. In contrast, most civil law countries base their legal education on professorial lectures and oral examinations, which are more suited for the mastery of complicated civil codes.
This style of teaching is often discomforting to first-year law students who are more accustomed to taking notes from professors' lectures. Most casebooks do not clearly outline the law: instead, they force the student to interpret the cases and draw the basic legal concepts from the cases themselves. As a result, many publishers market law school outlines that concisely summarize the basic concepts of each area of law, and good outlines are highly sought after by many students, although some professors discourage their use.
Most law schools offer extracurricular programs (both intramural and interscholastic) such as Mock trial and Moot court, which allow students to learn practical skills related to the practice of trial and appellate law. An increasing number of schools offer extracurricular programs in negotiation.
A prominent and prestigious extracurricular program at all major law schools is the law review, the school's official academic journal. In contrast to most academic fields, legal academic journals are always edited by students, and there is a strong distinction drawn between the "official" law review of a law school and other informal, less-prestigious subject-specific journals.
Law review membership is usually reserved for students with high grades, a high score on an admission test called a "write-on," or both. Thus, law review membership is considered to be an important credential on a lawyer's resume. Most federal judges and most partners at the largest law firms were members of their law school's law review. Well-known law reviews include the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review.
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