To aid in schedule planning, several areas of practice within the legal profession are discussed on the following pages. The practice of law can be divided in a variety of ways; other lawyers might feel differently about where specific courses fit. Therefore, the lists of practice areas and suggested courses should be viewed merely as a guide to successful planning. They are designed to help guide curriculum choices and should not be the exclusive source of information for any student. Advice of faculty, practitioners, and other students will all be valuable to students as they select law school courses.
Where appropriate, each practice area is further broken down into three categories of suggested courses: Basic, Special Interest, and Related Areas. The Basic list contains those courses which, at a minimum, should be taken to prepare you for practice in the given area. The Special Interest list contains additional courses likely to be of interest to you in preparing for practice in that area. The Related Areas list contains courses that will add to your understanding of the practice area, but devote less class time to the particular practice area. To the extent there is any disagreement over course classification, these listings err on the side of keeping the Basic list to a minimum.
While not a practice area, Legal Theory courses are described in a separate section. As discussed below, students should enrich their law school experience with at least one course that stresses legal theory.
Although not a practice area, there are certain courses, clinical offerings, and externship opportunities that will increase the likelihood of obtaining a judicial clerkship or externship and that will better guarantee good performance in those positions.
Courses in business and transactional law are essential to students interested in corporate law, but they also form a useful background for lawyers in more general practices and for students interested in law-related careers outside of traditional law practice. However, all law students should be interested in sampling business law courses to prepare for the shifting world of legal practice, to expand your own horizons, and to learn a bit about “life skills” such as taxes, investment, negotiation, or buying a house.
Overall, students interested in business and transactional law have many options. The available courses fall into seven general areas:
Many litigators handle a wide range of civil actions. While a few may limit their practice to a narrow substantive area such as Securities or Antitrust, most lawyers in small to mid-size firms litigate civil cases ranging from personal injury cases to family law disputes. Although litigation naturally arises in the other practice areas listed in this document (see, e.g., Employment, IP, Business), the courses listed here include aspects of tort law and specialty areas that have significant litigation components.
As mentioned in the Litigation Skills segment below, pre-trial practice is the essence of a civil practice. Furthermore, complex litigation inevitably leads to federal court, requiring knowledge relevant to a federal practice (federal procedure, issues regarding jurisdiction, issues regarding conflict of laws, etc.)
The attorneys who prosecute criminal defendants or who defend their clients from criminal charges handle some of the most lively and important cases in our legal system. The stakes are high: both liberty and life are at stake, and the cases routinely involve the practical meaning of constitutional rights and the basic safety and security of society. Criminal practice also allows an attorney to develop trial skills: even though the great majority of criminal cases are resolved through guilty pleas, the chances of taking a matter to trial are much higher in criminal matters than in civil litigation.
Federal, state, and local governments each employ prosecuting attorneys, who work within organizations that are supervised by elected or appointed chief prosecutors. A few criminal defendants hire their own attorneys and, in these cases, the fees can be substantial because the stakes are so high. However, since the vast majority of criminal defendants cannot afford to hire an attorney of their own, more frequently the government itself employs defense attorneys, just as they pay the prosecutors and judges. Some of these defense lawyers work in full-time public defender organizations, while others work in private practice and accept court appointments to represent individual defendants.
The introductory course in this field is Criminal Law, a required 1st year course. The other foundational topic is Criminal Procedure, which students can learn either in a one-semester overview (Criminal Procedure Survey 400) or a more thorough two-semester coverage (Criminal Procedure Investigation 405 and Criminal Procedure Adjudication 406). Either Criminal Procedure Survey or Criminal Procedure Investigation are highly recommended to all students, because the subject is tested on the bar exam. One of the most important special interest courses for lawyers in this field is Negotiation (Law 600), because plea bargaining occupies a major portion of a criminal lawyer’s time and attention. Among the areas related to criminal practice, Immigration Law (Law 564) has become one of the most frequently-used bodies of law. For many clients, a criminal conviction may carry more serious immigration consequences than the actual criminal penalty.
Employment Law concerns the statutes and common law rules that regulate the workplace, including: discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, and disability; wages and hours; safety and health; workers’ compensation; negligence and intentional torts; wrongful discharge; and contracts arising from handbooks and other company documents. Employment lawyers usually bring or defend suits before agencies and the courts, but some work in-house for corporations or the government. By contrast, Labor Law is limited to the relationship between employers and unions; currently, fewer than ten percent of private-sector employers are unionized.
General practitioners are the backbone of the American legal system and deliver the bulk of the legal services in this country. Furthermore, if you plan to practice law in a small firm or town, general practice may be your only option. In order to fulfill the public’s need for basic legal services, general practitioners must have the broadest possible legal background. Because a general practitioner is often the first lawyer consulted by a client with a legal problem, she must be able to solve the client’s problem or refer him to a more specialized attorney. Thus, the general practitioner must be familiar with the major areas of the law with which the average citizen comes in contact.
A lawyer in general practice must have a working knowledge of the subject matter of all of the 1st year courses. Furthermore, a general practitioner must have a working knowledge of administrative law, basic commercial law, real estate law, decedents’ estates law, and small business law. Often during the course of your career, you will develop more expertise in one of these areas, but if you plan to be a general practice attorney, you should strive to have a broad legal education. In addition, since most general practitioners either own or have an ownership interest in their practice, you should have some knowledge of operating a business.
In addition to the above courses, a student preparing for this area may consider courses in taxation, insurance, and basic trial courses. While general practitioners may choose to refer clients with sophisticated tax problems or complicated litigation cases, they must have enough knowledge in these areas to spot problems and to handle smaller trial work.
The general practice of law can be among the most rewarding types of practice. It involves close contact with the client and permits the building of rewarding relationships with clients. You will have the opportunity to work closely with other attorneys and to handle a diversity of cases. The important thing to remember is to take a wide variety of courses in law school and to develop client-oriented skills.
Health care is one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy. Its delivery and financing are of tremendous importance to individuals and society. Accordingly, health care law is one of the most vibrant and diverse areas of legal practice. Courses from across the entire curriculum are relevant to patients, physicians, and the health care industry. There are several distinct types of health law practice, including: 1) medical malpractice representation (a branch of personal injury litigation); 2) representing physicians, hospitals, nursing homes, or health insurers regarding their specialized regulatory and business law issues; 3) assisting individuals with insurance coverage or patients rights; and 4) representing pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients regarding intellectual property, liability, and regulatory issues. Students interested in practicing in one of these areas should have solid grounding in the fundamentals of the more general legal practice area encompassing the type of health law practice they envision.
Students may also want to consider graduate Business School courses offered as part of its health management concentration.
Intellectual Property (“IP”) is one of the fastest growing areas of law. The three main areas of Intellectual Property are
Typically, attorneys will choose to specialize in one of the three main areas. However, some attorneys, particularly those who handle IP litigation matters, will cover all three areas. Those who choose to prosecute patent applications must possess the requisite technical background and pass the Patent Bar Examination administered by the Patent and Trademark Office.
Intellectual Property provides an overview of the different legal mechanisms for protecting inventions, writings and source identifiers (trademarks and product packaging/design). It is designed for students seeking a general understanding of federal intellectual property law and its place in the corporate law regime. This course does not require a technical background and is ideal for those interested in corporate practice.
Regardless of which metaphor you choose (for instance, the well-worn notion that the world has gotten smaller or, in Thomas Friedman’s recent formulation, “flattened”), the reach of international law has greatly expanded in modern law practice in the United States. It used to be the case that lawyers in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago were the only ones who could reasonably expect to work on an international transaction. Now, lawyers in Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, and many other cities, including Winston-Salem, can also legitimately expect to find themselves confronted frequently by international legal questions.
How has this happened? It is a long story, but it comes about in large measure because of events in the economic and political spheres that have driven the development of national laws with an international impact and an increasing number of international laws themselves. The world has opened up significantly in the last few years to international practice due to a consensus over the merits of capitalism and the end of repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many Latin American and Asian nations especially Brazil and China, to take examples from each continent have also opened their economies to private participation. Moreover, this general development toward openness has been aided and abetted by multilateral trade regimes such as the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the NAFTA. The result of these developments has been the creation of an astounding array of new opportunities for the practice of law in an international context.
How can a law student prepare to respond to confront such opportunities? Even better, how can a law student strategize a pattern of classwork and practice that will result in a satisfying exposure to international work?
Most opportunities for international practice arise in the commercial context. Companies and individuals engage in cross-border transactions and, reluctantly, cross-border litigation. Consequently, aside from mastering the curricula described herein under business practice and litigation practice, both transactional lawyers and litigation specialists will need to understand the context and background of international and foreign law. Of course, many courses in the curriculum can be taught with an international component. For instance, Business Organizations could be taught from the perspective of corporate forms in civil law jurisdictions. Likewise, Environmental Law could look at multilateral initiatives, such as the Montreal or Kyoto Protocols, that affect international and domestic laws. Nonetheless, the following courses would provide the most concentration in the area of international practice.
The courses offered in our study-abroad programs in London, Vienna, and Venice are invaluable introductions to international practice.
Judges value law clerks who are strong researchers and writers. While not required of judicial clerkship or externship applicants, completion of these courses will ensure that you are well-positioned to obtain a clerkship or externship offer and are prepared to perform well in that position.
To learn more, visit the Judicial Clerking website.
Advanced Legal Research
Complex Civil Litigation
Federal Jurisdiction (if you seek a federal clerkship or externship)
Legal Writing for Judicial Chambers
Trial Practice (if you seek a trial court clerkship)
Courses tailored to the specific jurisdiction of the court are also important. For example, if you plan to apply for a clerkship at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, courses in International Trade, Intellectual Property, Patent Law, Trademarks, Copyright, Federal Income Tax, and Native American Law may be particularly helpful. Likewise, a bankruptcy court may prefer that you have taken Bankruptcy, and a Tax Court will prefer that you have completed tax courses. Research courses tailored to your court’s jurisdiction may also be beneficial.
Judges may also prefer applicants who possess pertinent legal work experience. Completing a judicial externship or participating in a legal clinic will provide you with relevant experience that will strengthen your application.
Judicial Externship (available year-round to 2Ls and 3Ls)
Metro Program in Washington (available to 3Ls in the spring term)
Wake Forest in Washington Summer Judicial Externship (available to rising 2Ls and 3Ls)
In addition to the litigation-centered clinics listed above, our other clinics also provide pertinent and beneficial legal work experience.
Your time in law school offers the opportunity to stretch your mind. The practice of law often involves solving practical problems in a very short time frame, leaving little time for reflection on the “big picture.” Therefore, students should try to take at least one class that focuses on legal theory and/or an interdisciplinary approach to legal problems, rather than on the “nuts and bolts” of a particular substantive area. Many students take several of these courses. These are often paper courses and satisfy Legal Analysis, Writing and Research IV (Law 800). While virtually every course has a significant theoretical component, the following are among those that stress various theoretical approaches to the solution of social problems.
The term “litigation” is broader than the term “trial”. The trial itself is but the tip of a large iceberg of litigation. The process includes the entire range of dispute resolution available to the legal profession. The possibility of going to trial to resolve a dispute drives a whole range of activity short of that. Negotiation and settlement resolve the majority of disputes, but in order to evaluate a case for settlement, you must understand how the trial process works and be able to predict a potential verdict or judgment should the case not be resolved.
If a lawsuit is filed, there are a myriad of tools for discovery of information. Most cases today are resolved during discovery and pretrial motions practice, and “Litigators” must also specialize in these areas. All lawyers must understand the trial process, but few actually try cases on a regular basis. However, most practitioners devote a substantial part of their practice to litigation.
Students who aspire to become litigators should prepare themselves for practice by taking courses in civil and criminal procedure, mediation, negotiation and other skills classes devoted to the pretrial and trial process. All of these courses emphasize learning by doing through preparation, knowledge of relevant procedure, and performance, just as in the practice of law.
The courses listed below focus on the skills aspects relevant to both civil and criminal litigation. Students are pointed to the separate sections above, Civil Litigation Practice and Criminal Practice for more complete lists of appropriate substantive courses.
Advanced courses in any particular area of practice can provide the necessary foundation for doing trial work in that field of the law. Every type of case may ultimately need to be resolved by trial, so you should consult specific areas of interest such as tax or tort law.
Historically, property practice has been divided into two major areas: real property transactions and gratuitous transfers, the latter including wills, trusts, and estates. More recently, intellectual property has evolved into a category that stands on its own.
The first major category of property practice involves real property transactions. A lawyer involved in this area must deal with both title transfer and financing aspects of land to be used in large scale projects such as apartments, condominiums, traditional subdivisions, planned unit developments, shopping centers, and industrial parks. Familiarity with the law of conveyancing, leases, mortgages, taxes, and zoning is also essential.Commercial Drafting
The second major category of property practice involves probate work and estate planning. A lawyer involved in this area must deal with wills, trusts, future interests, and the administration of decedents’ estates. Familiarity with the tax consequences of donative transfers is also essential.Decedents’ Estates and Trusts
In addition to the above, many lawyers involved in a general practice deal with a variety of real estate matters. Residential and minor commercial real estate transactions are an important area for many general practitioners who, for example, may litigate condemnation cases and deal with zoning problems, boundary disputes, and landlord-tenant problems.
Courses in the area of public practice are distinguished from those involving private law by the involvement of a government agency or institution in a legal matter or policy dispute. Public law normally involves an effort by a government agency to regulate conduct under legislative standards that are intended to promote the public interest. Decisions by an administrative agency are normally subject to judicial review, but they are also subject to executive and legislative oversight.
Attorneys serve numerous and different functions in public practice. Most lawyers who represent private clients will practice public law as well, because it is almost inevitable that clients will have a dispute with a local, state, or federal administrative agency or an interest in influencing the type of policies that such agencies might adopt. Moreover, many private attorneys specialize in some area of public practice, such as business regulation, employment law, or environmental law. Government lawyers are also deeply involved in the formulation and implementation of policy and regulation. For example, attorneys serving as legislative counsel, members of agency legal staffs, and municipal attorneys draft and review laws and regulations, and lawyers working for agencies enforce those laws and regulations. Other lawyers, who work for public interest groups and public interest law firms, seek to represent the interests of the public in governmental and judicial decision-making. Still other attorneys are involved in the criminal justice system as prosecutors or lawyers for defendants.
Sports Law is the study of how various substantive areas of the law (e.g., Contracts, Torts, Antitrust, and Labor Law) intersect to govern the relationships between the key participants in the increasingly complex sports industry. Sports Law provides both theoretical and practical perspectives through the study of case law and the state and federal legislation specifically enacted to address legal and policy concerns within the sports industry.
Tax law permeates every aspect of business activity. In addition, many non-business activities, such as a visit to the doctor or a contribution to your church or alma mater, carry tax consequences. Because of the tax system’s pervasive impact on commercial and personal transactions, it is recommended that all students take Taxation: Federal Income Taxation (Law 206), the introductory tax course. Students with an interest in a business practice or estate planning should take the additional tax courses relevant to their area of interest. Students interested in specializing in taxation should take all of the Basic Courses listed below and most, if not all, of the Special Interest Courses.
Tax practice may be divided into three broad categories: (1) tax planning; (2) tax compliance; and (3) tax litigation. Tax planning involves shaping transactions to attract the least amount of tax. For example, a client may wish to sell an apartment held for rental and replace it with unimproved real estate to be held as an investment. If the apartment is sold for cash and the cash used to purchase land, any gain realized on the sale will be subject to tax. However, this tax can be postponed if the transaction is planned as an exchange, rather than a sale and purchase. Good tax planning requires not merely informing a client of the tax consequences of a proposed transaction, but suggesting other ways of carrying out the same transaction at less tax cost.
Tax compliance involves giving advice as to the tax due on past transactions. Our federal income tax system depends on self-assessment, that is, on the taxpayer’s determination and payment of the correct tax due. Frequently, the advice of a tax lawyer will be requested in connection with preparation of a tax return. However, compliance also involves negotiations with IRS representatives to settle issues arising during an audit if the Internal Revenue Service disagrees with the taxpayer’s treatment of an item.
Tax litigation involves the same roles as any other type of representation: zealously representing your client in an adversarial proceeding. One difference is that the opposing party is always the government. Depending on the circumstances, litigation may occur in the Tax Court (a specialized court with jurisdiction limited to tax matters), Federal District Court, or the Court of Federal Claims. Finally, litigation may involve criminal tax fraud (a branch of criminal law), since willful tax evasion, failure to file a return, or filing a false return may result in criminal prosecution.
Students interested in developing a tax practice with a focus on business or estate planning (property) should consult the course listings for those areas.