On the first day of the new "Life of the Law" course offered for the first time as part of Vanderbilt's 1L orientation this fall, Professors Tracey George and Suzanna Sherry polled entering students about their academic backgrounds, using a computerized system that allowed the results to appear within seconds on a screen at the front of Flynn Auditorium. According to the poll, 43 percent of the 224 J.D. and LL.M. students entering Vanderbilt Law School in fall 2008 held degrees in the social sciences, while 24 percent had earned degrees in the humanities, 9 percent in business, 3 percent in engineering, 2 percent in fine arts, 2 in percent math or computer science, and 1 percent in the natural sciences. The remaining 16 percent of the class selected the nebulous catch-all category "Other."
According to Professor Tracey George, who developed the "Life of the Law" course with Professor Suzanna Sherry, that diversity of backgrounds accounts for the steep learning curve many students encounter during their first semester of law school. Professor George, who studies the judiciary, and Professor Sherry, a constitutional law scholar, designed their new course to provide a comprehensive overview of the ideas and concepts that inform American law and legal education. In addition to providing a basic grounding in non-legal topics important to the study of law, the class provides an overview of the judiciary's structure and role, legal reasoning, and the legal ideas students need to understand to get the most out of their 1L courses. "The class is designed to give students the tools, techniques and background they need to succeed in their first year of law school," Professor George says. "By the end of the week, students have been introduced to the basic concepts they will encounter in their 1L classes, including some of the hallmarks of the American legal system, such as mandatory versus discretionary jurisdiction, burdens of proof, and majority, concurring and dissenting opinions. They will understand the essential difference between a common law system and a civil law system."
The course, which met during Orientation Week, also touches on the sources and interpretation of American law, and includes a practical overview of the legal profession as well as a session on preparing for law classes. "During the first year of law school, students learn about the institutions that make, interpret and enforce law," Professor George says. "The study of those institutions should be comfortable, even enjoyable." Although the course premiered at Vanderbilt, it may soon be part of the curriculum at other law schools; Aspen Press will publish the textbook Professors Sherry and George wrote for the course, What Every Law Student Really Needs to Know: An Introduction to the Study of Law, in 2009.
"Students today have more choices as undergraduates than ever before, and they arrive at law school with very different backgrounds and skill sets," Dean Edward L. Rubin says. "The new 'Life of the Law' course gives our incoming students—both 1Ls and LL.M.s—a common framework before they start the 1L curriculum. By offering this course, we're taking a significant step toward our goal of preparing students to graduate into a legal market with a broader array of career options and legal specialties than ever before."