Looking into the law: three strategies

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Does a woman who is kissed without her consent have the right to bring legal action? Do trees have the right to be represented in court? Who owns the squirrel hiding in the forest?

The answers to these and other questions are found in the first-year curriculum at law school.

Most of the nation's leading law schools train their students to ''think like lawyers'' by analyzing court opinions. Only recently have a few schools begun to emphasize the ''practical'' side of the law - such as writing legal memorandums, drafting complaints and briefs, and representing clients. Advocates of clinical legal education believe that hands-on experience is something that should be provided during law school, not afterward.

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After four years at Harvard College as an American history and literature major, I chose to attend one of these non-traditional graduate law schools: Northeastern. Situated in the heart of Boston, it has become a model of how to combine practical experience with traditional academic studies.

Mine is a small but diverse class of 138 people selected from more than 2,200 applicants. Only 19 percent of the class came directly from college, and many have had careers in other professions. (Most law schools have a higher percentage of students who have come directly to law school from undergraduate school.)

Three months into the first year, I am nonetheless overwhelmed. Most schools require four for five courses at first; at Northeastern, I have seven: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Contracts, Property, Civil Procedure, Torts, and Legal Practice, a year-long legal-simulation class based on a single landlord-tenant dispute.

Despite the heavy workload, there is no grading system, no class ranking, and no law review competition, only a pass-fail system with written evaluations. Thus there is less of an adversarial relationsihp between professor and student.

The key to Northeastern is its legal apprenticeship program, called ''co-op.'' After the first year, students alternate every three months between classroom study and legal clerkships in public and private law offices.

Northeastern may be different in its approach, but law school is still law school, no matter how idealistically you perceive it. It is a difficult time for my peers and me, as we learn a new language and new ways of thinking. For example, a word like ''consideration'' loses its traditional meaning: in law, consideration is something of value given in return for performance or promise of performance by another, for the purpose of forming a contract.

Michael Meltsner, dean of the law school at Northeastern, says: ''First-year students are generally well prepared for the difficulty of the work, but not for learning a new language, which affects the way they think of themselves and others.''

My friends at other, more traditional law schools agree, although a first-year Harvard law student confided in me that law school seemed similar to high school: ''You have homework every day, you sit in assigned seats in the same room with the same students, and you learn the material because you have to , not because you're interested in it.''

In some law schools, like Harvard, students are called on by professors and asked to recite facts and the results of cases. Northeastern classes provide more of a dialogue. A good law school class - at Northeastern or elsewhere - is usually a piece of theater with audience participation.

And like the theater, the law is changing constantly. Take, for example, the questions posed at the beginning of this article. According to an 1875 Wisconsin court, a woman who is kissed without her consent does have an action for battery. But in many states today, unconsented kissing might legally be deemed ''ordinary'' and ''reasonable.''

Regarding the representation of trees, environmentalists are trying to convince the courts that trees, or their representatives, should have the capacity to sue. Currently, trees have the right to be represented but only in unusual circumstances. Finally, no one actually owns the squirrel; but legally, the sovereign, usually the state, is often considered its owner.

In the past 15 years, enrollments in law schools have more than doubled. There is clearly a tremendous amount of knowledge to gain, as I have come to see in my first three months.

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