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September 3, 2009

Vanderbilt Law: America's Best Orientation?

In response to my earlier post regarding orientation, I received a detailed response from Suzanna Sherry, who has revamped the orientation at Vanderbilt.  One striking innovation is that they treat orientation as a class-- with tests and credit.  The basis for the class is the book Suzanna wrote with Tracey George, "What Every Law Student Really Needs To Know."  In whole, there are many aspects of the Vanderbilt orientation that other schools should consider emulating, including the time commitment, the breadth of what is covered, and the idea of treating orientation as a separate class.


Suzanna's description of this effort is below. 


The course is called "The Life of the Law," and meets for 3 hours a day for four days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in two 90-minute blocks, and Friday in one 3-hour block; Monday is reserved for welcoming and administrative matters). There's an objective-question exam on Friday afternoon. The course is pass-fail. Last year two of us co-taught it to all 225 incoming JD & LLM students in one room (!). This year we added two more faculty and broke the students into two sections, each co-taught.


Basically, the course introduces them to law school, to pervasive legal concepts, and to techniques for reading, understanding, and using legal materials.


Tuesday we start with a brief description of law school and law school classes, including making them read made-up excerpts from a case, a statute, and a contract and answer simple questions (their first of three increasingly difficult case-reading exercises to get them up to speed for their first day of the regular semester). Then we review American civics, and describe the different sources of law, the basic methods of legal interpretation, and the court system(s) in the U.S.


On Wednesday we cover reading and reasoning. They read an excerpt from Morse v. Frederick (the BONG HiTS 4 JESUS case in the Supreme Court) and learn how to decipher case citations, distinguish law from fact and substance from procedure, brief cases, and anticipate the professor's questions (their second case-reading exercise). We also lead a discussion that tries to apply Morse as precedent to hypotheticals involving high school bans on various t-shirt slogans. We teach them about analytical and analogical reasoning. (We also play a "Legal Knowledge" game as a midweek review of what they've learned so far.)


Thursday is all about concepts. We start with the pervasive legal doctrines that all their professors think someone else is teaching them, like standards of review, burdens of proof, stare decisis, states of mind. We also cover basic law and economics concepts (like efficiency, market failure, and transaction costs), and some basic behavioral economics (cognitive biases) as well as a grab-bag of other tools for legal argument, including slippery slopes, baselines, and the difference between normative and positive.


On Friday they do their final case-reading exercise, which comes pretty close to a regular class. We hand out a 3-page excerpt from a recent Supreme Court case, lecture on the background concepts they need to understand it, and then question them Socratically. They also get a library tour (which took much less time than allotted, incidentally).


-- Mark Osler



September 3, 2009 | Permalink


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It is a good idea to buy the Bar review CD's, on the 7 subjects of the Bar exam, cheap, on Ebay. Listen to each set six times in the summer before the first day of law school. Lawyer gibberish is shocking and appalling when first encountered.

Because bar review allows no time for games or nonsense, they are getting down to the real meaning of doctrine. Some CD's are good enough to justify a listen for their own entertainment value. Dan Fessler on Contracts should have been a 1940's radio program. His family and other characters are funny. For example, unilateral vs bilateral contracts. Why? Simple. He did not want to pay his lazy, useless 16 year old neighbor anything until the grass actually got mowed.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 3, 2009 5:52:10 PM

This sounds like a useful exercise. Columbia has for many years had something similar, albeit more elaborate -- a required three-week "Legal Methods" course that all new 1Ls take before beginning doctrinal courses.


Posted by: Anon NYC | Sep 4, 2009 2:48:47 PM

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