Planning Your Academic Program

Three years sounds like a long time to be in law school, but it means that you have only six semesters to learn how to think like a lawyer, understand the substance of the law, and develop the skills you'll need in your future professional life.

This guide is designed to help you plan an academic program that will help make those six semesters interesting and meaningful and ensure that your academic program meets your professional needs. It gives you basic principles for selecting courses, advice on selecting your first-year electives, and it also provides specific Curriculum Guides for Areas of Practice that describe academic programs for particular practice areas.

Here's what you'll find below:

Principles of Course Selection

After the required courses in the first year, you'll have substantial freedom to custom-tailor an academic program to your particular interests and goals, and you'll have a wide array of courses from which to choose. This presents a wonderful opportunity for you, but it also means that there is no set curriculum; the responsibility for planning a coherent academic program is yours -- so you'll want to give it the time and attention it deserves.

As you choose your courses, we strongly encourage you to keep in mind the graduation requirements and the separate requirements for the diploma privilege and use the worksheet that is provided at the end of section 4 in READ THIS FIRST (the student handbook). If, after reviewing the information about the requirements in READ THIS FIRST, you still have questions about the worksheet or the requirements, be sure to consult with the Law School Registrar or the Assistant Dean for Curricular Affairs. Remember that you'll need to meet with the Registrar in your fourth semester or early in the fifth semester of law school to be sure that you are on track to meet your requirements.

You should also plan ahead. Some courses are prerequisites for specialized courses, clinics, or simulation courses and should be taken early. Many courses are offered just once each year, and some courses are offered only every other year. See 2.2.5 in READ THIS FIRST. Also, consider what else you will be doing in a given semester and adjust your schedule accordingly. For instance, if you are going to be participating in on-campus interviews (OCI) or traveling for interviews in the fall of your second year, you may want to take a somewhat lighter load that semester, since a job search can be time consuming. Or if you think you may want to study abroad for a semester, you may want to plan to take your required courses before your semester abroad. In order to graduate with your class and with the Diploma Privilege, you must plan realistically and determine whether you can fit in a study abroad program, multiple clinical programs, or extensive extracurricular activities.

How to Select Courses

Your First Year

The first-year curriculum is designed to teach the fundamentals of legal analysis and reasoning, to introduce you to core substantive legal principles, and to give you a foundation for legal research and writing. All courses in the first year are required, except that in the spring semester of the first year, full-time students choose two 3-credit electives from the following: Civil Procedure II, Contracts II, Legal Process, International Law, Administrative Law, Constitutional Law I, Introduction to Criminal Procedure or Business Organizations I.  Guidelines for Choosing Your Elective

Your Second & Third Years

In your second and third years at the Law School, you will have time to explore the curriculum both to determine your interests and to develop the necessary substantive knowledge and lawyering skills. Although the J.D. degree requirements and Diploma Privilege requirements will guide some of your choices, you will be free to choose from a wide range of courses, clinical programs, journals, moot court, and other credit-earning experiences (See Section 4 of READ THIS FIRST).

There are no precise rules for selecting second- and third-year courses. There are, however, various approaches to selecting courses, and alternative ways to think about these choices.

Five Approaches to Selecting Courses

Here are five approaches to selecting courses that, in combination, will help you choose a curriculum to meet your educational goals:

  1. Choose Courses You Need For Graduation & Bar Privilege

    In planning your course of study remember that after the first-year's 32 credits of required courses, you still will need about 15 credits (or the equivalent of one semester) of additional required, specific coursework for graduation and the diploma privilege, leaving approximately 43 credits of electives (although you must remember to satisfy the 60- and 90- credit rules (See Sections 4.4 and 4.6 of READ THIS FIRST)).

    The vast majority of students who earn J.D. degrees from the Law School also readily meet the requirements for the Wisconsin Diploma Privilege, but it is important to keep in mind that the requirements for the J.D. degree and the diploma privilege are not exactly the same. If you choose to satisfy the diploma privilege (and most students will want to,) be sure to read the requirements carefully.

    If you are considering a job outside of Wisconsin you may want to take courses to help you prepare for a bar exam. These courses include basic substantive law courses such as Business Organizations, Conflict of Laws, Evidence, and Constitutional Law. You may also want to work on your exam writing skills, since all bar exams include essay sections in which the examinee must identify a reasoned analysis in a clear, concise, and well organized essay. For more on bar exams, see Other Considerations below.
  2. Choose Basic Courses That Provide a Broad Education

    A broad understanding of the law is essential to practice, and it is important to obtain a legal education that introduces you to the concepts and analytic structure of many areas of law. Clients rarely have legal problems that fit neatly into curricular or career specialties, and lawyers are problem solvers who should be able to identify potential problems that fall outside their specialties. There are also a few subjects with which the public expects every lawyer to have some familiarity.

    There are some courses beyond the first-year required courses that most law students take and that many lawyers believe form the core of a second- and third-year curriculum. In putting together your curriculum, you may want to consider including several of these courses. These include Business Organizations I and II, Tax I, Civil Procedure II, Constitutional Law I and II, and Evidence (the latter three are required for the diploma privilege.) In addition, many lawyers and employers feel that an Advanced Legal Writing Course should be part of a basic legal education. 
  3. Choose a Concentration of Courses in One or More Areas of Law

    You may want to develop some specialized knowledge by taking a reasonable concentration of courses in an area (or areas) of particular interest. Advanced courses teach advanced skills and deal with complex problems that aren't taught in survey courses; this can make these classes particularly interesting and intellectually challenging. Advanced courses can also better approximate the types of problems that occur in practice. Pursuing a particular area of law in depth allows you to develop a level of competence and confidence that can make you a strong candidate in the job market.

    But, beware of excessive specialization. Make sure that you have the courses and skills that employers expect as part of a basic education. It is impossible to foresee the changing patterns in the job market or future career opportunities and challenges. An overly specialized curricular focus may limit your career flexibility and your ability to find a job in a tight market.
  4. Identify Skills That You Want to Improve

    Another way to choose courses is to identify the skills that you need and balance your course selection by including courses based on those needs. The substantive law changes constantly and much of the substance that you learn will change dramatically in your lifetime, but the skills that you learn will last your whole career.

    The Law School offers a large variety of clinical courses, simulation courses, and skill courses in which students have the opportunity to learn lawyering skills in live-client or simulation contexts. These courses permit students to complement the theoretical study of law with experience writing in a variety of contexts, interviewing clients, investigating facts, dealing with adverse parties, contacting government agencies, negotiating on behalf of clients and participating in real or hypothetical court proceedings.

    Include courses that will develop your intellectual and analytical skills and strengthen your oral and written communications skills. According to the UW Law School's Assessment 2000, a survey of recent graduates and employers, legal analysis and reasoning is the most important skill for law graduates to bring from law school, and it is critical to the success of a new lawyer. Employers and graduates also ranked oral and written communication as among the most important skills for a lawyer to bring from law school; according to respondents, these same skills are critical to a new lawyer's success in the workplace. You should select courses that ensure that you graduate with strength in these areas.
  5. Select Outstanding Instructors or Interesting Courses & Diversify your Perspectives

    An excellent approach to choosing courses is to select courses taught by professors you admire – professors whose classes will challenge you and whose approach to teaching excites you – or courses on interesting topics. Courses chosen either because of enthusiasm for the instructor or the subject matter are often the richest experiences one has in law school.

    You should also consider diversifying the perspectives from which you see the law by taking at least one or two courses that encourage interdisciplinary thinking about law, including those that offer a global perspective. It is important that students understand the relationship between law and other disciplines and have a perspective on a legal system outside the Anglo-American system that may have solved familiar legal problems in unfamiliar ways.

Other Considerations

Here are some additional points to consider when choosing your courses:

Courses for students taking bar exams. Students sometimes ask whether they should select courses to help them pass a bar exam. The answer varies by student and depends on a student's ability to learn large amounts of information easily in a very short amount of time.

Feedback from students who have taken a bar exam suggests that it is useful to take at least a few courses with a view towards the exam. Some students find that they have an easier time studying for the bar exam if they have had some exposure to the material during law school. And students who have performed poorly on law school exams may find it beneficial to take the basic courses on subjects that will be on the bar exam.

There are a number of different types of bar exams and each state has its own requirements and its own way of combining the different types of exams. The MPRE (see below) is a stand-alone exam. The others are combined into multi-day exams.

  • MPRE: Most jurisdictions mandate the taking of the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination [MPRE] as a prerequisite for admission to practice law. The MPRE is administered in March, August, and November, and many students take it at the Law School in November or March of their third-year. It is a two hour test with 60 multiple-choice questions. The passing score varies by state.
  • MBE: The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) is required by almost all states. It is designed to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and legal reasoning to analyze a given fact pattern. The questions focus on the understanding of the legal principles, not on memorization. Each question presents a fact pattern in the form of a vignette and asks the examinee to select the best answer from among four listed responses. There are 200 questions covering the following subjects:
    • Constitutional Law
    • Contracts/Sales (UCC)
    • Criminal Law/Procedure
    • Evidence
    • Real Property
    • Torts
    • Civil Procedure (beginning in Feb. 2015)
  • Essays: All bar exams include an essay section in which the examinee must identify legal issues and present a reasoned analysis in a clear, concise, and well-organized composition. The subjects on the essay sections of bar exams vary by state.

    For instance, the subjects for the Illinois bar exam include: Agency, Commercial Paper, Conflict of Laws, Corporations, Equity, Family Law, Federal Jurisdiction & Procedure, Partnerships, Personal Property, Sales, Secured Transactions, Suretyship, Trusts & Future Interests, and Wills (Descendents' Estates).

    On the other hand, New York's essay section includes topics such as: Agency, Commercial Paper, Conflict of Laws, Corporations, Domestic Relations, Equity, Estate Taxation, Federal Jurisdiction, Future Interests, Insurance (no fault), Mortgages, Partnership, Personal Property, Secured Transactions, Trusts, Wills, and Workers' Compensation.

    (Courses such as Business Organizations I & II, Conflict of Laws, Federal Jurisdiction, Tax, Secured Transactions, and Family Law cover many of the required topics.)
  • MPT: The Multistate Performance Test is the newest addition to the bar exam. It is a "closed universe" practical problem using instructions, factual data, cases, statutes, and other reference material supplied by the examiners. It is 90 minutes long. It is becoming increasingly popular and is administered in 33 jurisdictions the day before the MBE.

    (Clinical courses, internships, and work experience are helpful in preparing for the MPT.)

For up-to-date information on which subjects are tested on a particular state's bar exam, go to

Students should also be aware that certain courses may be prerequisites to taking some states' bar examinations. Finally, some jurisdictions may limit the number of clinical credits that can be applied toward a law degree. Information about these and other bar admission requirements is available at

The sequence of courses. Advanced courses build on prerequisites. For example, Trial Advocacy requires that you have taken Evidence. It is helpful, but not essential, to take Business Organizations II before Securities Law. Also remember that many seminars and some clinicals have prerequisites. There are only four semesters in the second and third years, so you will not have much margin for error in planning sequences of three or four courses. The course descriptions identify recommended or required sequences where appropriate. When planning your second-year schedule, you should keep your options open by selecting courses that will serve as prerequisites for advanced work. In general, it is sound planning to take survey courses and courses that introduce sequences in the second year and to defer more specialized courses to the third year.

Your transcript as an employer might view it. If you know (or think you know) the kind of work you'd like to do, be sure to select the courses that your employer will expect to see. For instance, if you are thinking about going to Washington, D.C. and working for a federal agency, a potential employer will look to see if you've taken administrative law and some regulatory courses. If you want to do litigation, employers will expect you to have evidence, trial advocacy, and other courses that show you are serious about doing trial work. As noted above, be careful not to pigeon-hole yourself with too many courses in any one area. Thus if you're not interested in criminal law, balance your coursework and clinicals to include civil law. And be careful about how seminars and study abroad programs look to employers -- not all employers look favorably on these experiences.

The pattern of grades you have already earned may be a factor when you select courses. You should imagine what your transcript will look like to a potential employer. A person with low grades at the beginning of law school who seems to be avoiding challenging courses might not get an interview with a firm or agency, whereas another student with the same pattern for the first year might get a clerkship if the course selection reflects a willingness to face challenges, and an acknowledgment that there are skills that need developing.

To be frank, the person with grades in the top 20% of the class may be able to get by with less strategically chosen courses. Many employers are quite aware that most students finish in the middle of the class. They may have gotten one or more low marks themselves. They are most interested in seeing evidence of improvement, diligence, and an ability to perform at a high level, even if that performance is not uniform.

Finally, if you're not at all clear about what you want to do, be sure to select courses that give you a well-rounded education.

The decision to study abroad. Studying abroad is a valuable experience for many law students, but it is not a wise academic (or financial) choice for everyone.  As you plan your academic program, you will need to weigh the benefits and the costs of participating in a study abroad program. There are many benefits, including a remarkable educational experience, a broadening perspective of the world, insights into another legal system, and a chance to travel.  However, students must plan ahead to avoid unexpected problems. For example, the academic schedules of foreign law schools can interfere with summer employment opportunities, since the schedules can run into July or start in early August. Conflicts also arise with job fairs, on-campus interviews and other job-related programs, bar review courses, and bar exams. Carefully consider these scheduling issues as you make your decision and as you choose which semester or summer to study abroad.

You also will  need to ensure that you have taken, or will be able to take, your required courses and meet your credit requirements. Students who participate in study abroad programs do not always end up with the same amount of credits that they would receive if they stayed in Madison. The director of the study abroad program can explain how credits earned abroad will transfer to UW credits.  If you decide on a semester abroad, it is wise plan to take a few extra credits before your semester abroad or after you return.

Developing a relationship with a faculty member through coursework. Consider using your course work to help you develop relationships with one or more faculty members who will get to know you and your work, will be able to advise you, and give you meaningful recommendations. You can get to know faculty by

  • being an active participant in and outside of class
  • enrolling in smaller more specialized courses and seminars
  • visiting professors during office hours
  • doing an independent study for a professor
  • serving as a research or project assistant for a faculty member

Curriculum Guides for Areas of Practice

The Curriculum Guides below are for students who have an interest in a particular area of practice and are looking for additional guidance in developing an academic program that gives them a concentration in that practice area. Again, there is no single, correct plan or program, and there are many differing opinions as to the type and number of courses that should be taken.

The information within each category is designed to help you select courses, clinics, and seminars for particular practice areas and give you information about extracurricular activities that will promote professional skills and interests. The second- and third-year curriculum is quite flexible and these guides are just recommendations, not requirements. Individual scheduling as well as the frequency of course and seminar offerings may not make it feasible to follow the recommendations exactly, so be flexible.The following Practice Guides include many, but certainly not all, of the practice areas identified by the American Bar Association and other specialty groups. If you do not have a particular interest area or know what kind of work you want to do after graduation, you may wish to choose a broad curriculum that will provide a great deal of flexibility. For you, we have developed a Basic Curriculum as a general guide.

Curriculum Guides

Log in to edit