Law School Life: How to: Choose Your Electives

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

You might be rolling your eyes at this post.

Lauren, you say. I know what I want to do for my electives. This is what I got through my first year of law school for!

Yes, I know you might have one or two ideas of electives for your law school career.

But what about all of them?

What about those extra spots you inevitably will have in your schedule, where you look at the electives available for your term, there's three equally attractive options, and you're not sure which one to pick in light of still wanting to keep up your grades and what might "look good" to employers after law school.

Well, I'm here to tell you, from experience, there are a few considerations you should really be making before you chose any elective right off the bat.

A List of Considerations before Signing Up to Any Elective:

  • What assessments do you succeed at? (I.E: Does the course have a 100 percent final exam, a 100 percent research paper, or a mixture of the two? Does it have a mooting final, or a presentation?)

For me personally, I'm better at essays. Any space that I'm able to fully discuss my ideas at length is what I honestly succeed at. It's why I plan to be a law professor one day, as well as a lawyer. In practice, I am able to apply hypothetical framework. It just doesn't come as naturally as essay writing or legal research.

Consider what form of assessment you are best at when considering electives. If you plan on going into an Environmental Law course, for example, but the assessment is some strange Environmental Law moot, and you hate mooting and avoid actually practicing going to court at any opportunity, there's two ways to look at it. Either you can push yourself out of your comfort zone, and probably accept a lower grade, or go for an Environmental Law or an adjacent area of law elective that will allow you to sink a higher grade.

Unfortunately, a lot of times, law school doesn't allow you to be a risk-taker, when afterwards, hiring is often determined by class placement and grades. My advice would be if there's an area of law or style of assessment you want to practice, find a way to practice it outside class hours, and stick to assessments you know you can demonstrate your best skills in.

  • What subjects do you enjoy? This one seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many law students base their elective picks on whether or not it'll appear "solid" on a transcript. While this is a consideration, if you choose Tax Law because you think it makes you look like a "srs lawyer," and then absolutely hate every moment of Tax Law, that kind of defeats the purpose of electives, doesn't it?

There are some courses that employers look favourably on- however, they're less about the subject of the coursework, and more about if it gives you real life experience. If you're able to get out of the four walls of the law school cocoon and get some practical experience in. If I could wind back the clock to closing another elective (besides one I honestly did just to get an extra credit through the grinder), it would be taking the time to do some practical work experience in an academic setting, if I hadn't been working at the same time.

I think that is one important caveat to the last paragraph: If you are juggling several commitments, like I was in law school, a lot of "hands on" law classes honestly seem to have a lot of "busy work." Unlike an exam you can take at the end of the term, or a paper you can consistently plug away at, a lot of practical experience legal courses have things like "reflection journals," "mid-term assessments," "practical assessments": and honestly, as someone who doesn't like 'tic-tac' assessment styles, I know I would find it annoying, even fi I enjoyed the coursework. So make sure you combine my last point about assessment style with subjects you enjoy, and a dash of employers looking at you favourably.

  • Consider the professor: Not popular advice in the eyes of law schools, but one I'm going to dispense nonetheless. Sometimes, personalities just don't click. That could have an adverse effect on your grades.

Consider what their reputation is, how they are known to approach the study of law, and if their grading is known as famously "harsh."

For example, if one professor appreciates a historical background before actually getting into the nitty gritty of law, and you do as well, by all means, sign up for their course.

But if another theoretical professor has a reputation for just appreciating "black letter law" (aka solely focusing on the legislation itself), and you prefer a more contextual approach to the law, think twice about taking their class. Even if you have bold ambitions about improving your writing in terms of focusing on black letter law, it really isn't worth sacrificing a grade and a hit to your GPA to do so. I'd suggest the same thing I suggested above: Find another outlet to practice your approach to whatever area you're struggling in, that has less ramifications for your future. Writing centres will honestly love you if you come in and say you're struggling generally with a writing concept: that's what they're there for, after all!

  • Consider the size of the class: Some classes are bigger than others. But seriously- think about how much that plays with how closely you get to work on projects if group work is your thing, if you're looking for a reference- it's going to be harder in a group of fifty to get a solid reference than in a group of thirty or even twenty.

That's why, besides a few "I just genuinely enjoy these and they have an assessment type I like so why the hell not" electives, the majority of electives I looked at were on the smaller side and were professors I ended up getting references from. I found in larger classes, unless you're constantly speaking up, you can tend to get lost in a crowd. I received an A- in Property Law, for example, and I still wasn't able to get a reference from a professor. Why?

She said she didn't know me well enough. Which is probably true. Take my advice and consider class size carefully.

  • Consider what type of lawyer you want to be: This is a bit of another take on considering subjects you actually like. But- surprise- considering subjects you actually like and what you'd actually like to practice in "the real world" are two very different things.

For example, I really love Health Law as a subject. Particularly Bioethics, or the niche area of considering the ethnical ramifications of legal decisions concerning health care. So, for a particularly 2020-laden example: "Who should get a cure to the COVID-19 vaccine first? Those who can afford it or those who are the most vulnerable?"

This obviously lends itself more to either academic study, policy, or analyst positions, rather than the strict practice of law as a litigator or solicitor (if I was to stick firmly to Health Law for the purposes of this hypothetical).

An area of Health Law I found out I really couldn't stomach in practice was Employment Law/ Personal Injury litigation. Mostly because the majority of physical injuries in Personal Injury Law lead to mental health issues from being unemployed, depressed, etc. And reading day-in and day-out about other people's mental health struggles was honestly affecting my mental health personally. I couldn't separate my own mental health from that of the client.

This leads me to my overall point; namely, that just because you like a subject in theory, does not necessarily mean you will like it in practice. That is why it is important to consider what sort of lawyer you want to be.

There are many different types of lawyers. Do you want to be a practicing lawyer? A professor? A policy analyst? A businessperson? That will all effect what sort of law (and electives) you lean towards.

And with considering what sort of career you'd like to have in mind, that actually already answers the question of what elective may look good on a resume/C.V. for people when you are looking for jobs.

"Looking good" on a resume means different things for different people. Someone vetting an Indigenous Law position will probably wonder why you don't have a demonstrated interest in Indigenous Law (unless, of course, your law school actually doesn't offer Indigenous Law courses). But they'll probably be looking for experience in Indigenous Law or at least interest one way or another.

Same if you're interested in "BigLaw." If you have a lot of public interest electives, and you're applying for a corporate BigLaw position, you're probably going to have to explain at a certain point why you didn't take more corporate or business electives.

Consider where you want your career to go, and allow that to guide your elective process.

  • Lastly, consider the sign-up process: A lot of law schools have more limitations on who can sign up for what elective, and what prerequisites one must have to sign up for an elective. Just like in undergraduate studies, you should be aware if you have your heart really set on a certain elective, what is required of you in order to sign up for that certain elective (Do you have to ask the professor's permission? Better get to know them quickly!), plan at least half a term ahead.

One of the things I'd do when I'd start a new law school year, was I'd look at the electives offered in whatever given year (Lets say 2020 for an example), and then plan on the electives I'd choose for second term, even if I wasn't signing up for it yet. That way, when the time came around to signing up for really popular electives, I'd be there constantly refreshing on my computer, have the course code written down and already knowing I'd be approved by the professor, and just slide right into that class. It takes a little extra planning, but it pays off!

Let me know on social media if any of these tips or tricks resonated with you, and until next week- keep your law dreams high, and your work ethic higher!

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