Course Spotlight – Introduction to the American Legal System

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Well thank you very much, I appreciate that, and once again, welcome everybody. I will  go over the courses in more detail in a moment, but for the time being, let’s focus on a course that I’ve designed and I teach regularly in the program –Introduction to the American Legal System.

As Mr. Richmond pointed out, this is a course that is required for the M.A students and not required for the LL.M. students, and that’s because it’s understood that after three years of law school, you should know something about the American Legal System. The M.A students don’t have the benefit of three years of legal education and so again, as Mr. Richmond pointed out, it’s essential to bring those students up to speed because they will be in law school courses taught by law school professors alongside practicing lawyers, and we want to give you everything we have so that you can keep up and excel and thrive in those courses.

You can think of this as sort of a crash course in law school and it’s going to cover the fundamental aspects of what it’s like to be a lawyer, the types of things that lawyers learn, the types of things that lawyers do, how the American Legal System works.

It’s going to start off with the three branches of government and how a bill becomes a law. It goes into the depth and detail that you’ve probably been too afraid to ask, and then it goes into and give you a very high-level review of different content areas of laws. Give you a little something to know what is American Contract Law like? What is American Tort Law like? What is American Civil Procedure look like and discovery? Just a little glimpse into each of these so as to acclimate you and so you can contextualize what you will be learning throughout the semesters ahead.

Very importantly, the course will also focus on critical legal skills – legal reasoning and legal writing. That’s what lawyers do, that’s the types of work product that lawyers produce. We want you to be comfortable with that type of work product, and to be able to produce some of it on your own. That’s the course’s objective, those are the high points of the course.  That’s its purpose.

Now, let me talk a little bit of how the course is structured, because it’s typical of most courses in the program and by going through this particular course, you’ll get a sense of what most courses are like. Again, with the caveat that some professors do things a little bit differently, but for the most part this is a pretty mainstream approach.

First off, every course in the program is a seven-week course. It’s seven weeks and then you get a week off, and then the semester finishes up with another seven-week course. So in the fall semester, you take one course for seven weeks, you have a week off, and then you take a second course that semester for seven weeks as well. Then there’s a break between semesters and spring would start and you do that all over again. A break between the semesters, and then there’s a summer session as well. Seven weeks, week off, seven weeks, break, and then starts over.  So that’s how it works. This is a seven-week course. Every course in the program is seven weeks except for the capstone which is fourteen. Now some courses are two credits, some are three. This happens to be a two-credit course. The difference is because they’re all seven weeks, is the amount of workload you should expect within a course.  A three-credit course will have a little bit more work, a little more reading than a two-credit course.

So how does the course work? Well, every week, we use a MOODLE-based platform. The way it would work is you would log into your course and when you log in you’ll see all the weeks laid out. Week one through seven. Certain assignments will be open for you, the week that you’re on, certain assignments won’t yet be available for you to access.

In your current week, you’ll have a list of readings, some will be PDF links, some will be just a listing of pages to read in an assigned textbook for the course. My course is a combination. There’s an assigned textbook, and there’s supplemental readings that are posted on the website. Again, I think that’s fairly typical of courses in this program.

So you do the readings, and then the readings are supplemented with a PowerPoint voiced-over presentation. This presentation can run ten to twenty minutes or so depending on the week.  The point of the presentation is to pull together the readings and materials that you are introduced to that week – to help again explain it, bring it together, address current issues that are arising under it. It’s the type of thing that you’d get in a classroom lecture. So, it’s not just the reading on your own, you have an instructor then, help explain material to you. So there’s that video to watch. That’s every week.

Now on top of that, every week will usually feature a quiz or assignment of some sort, and that’s to test your knowledge, make sure you’re keeping up with the material. The quizzes will test content, the assignments will usually test your mastery of certain skills.

In my course, there’s a legal interpretation, a statutory interpretation assignment, there’s also a legal memo writing assignment to make sure you’ve mastered, or at least are starting to practice those skills of legal writing and legal research.  The quizzes are commonly multiple choice, sometimes they’re short answer, they’re typically timed.  We can’t do closed-book exams because you’re at your laptop, or you’re wherever you are at home, but we can time the exams which is what we do to give you an incentive to know the material before you open up the exam or the quiz.

Finally, and very importantly each week usually features a discussion board. This is a really important facet of each course. The discussion board allows the students to interact with each other as they respond to a question or two posed by the instructor. You get to share opinions with one another. These are not what we see in let’s say, the modern media or cable news, all that stuff.

These are informed. We expect informed, high-level discussion of issues based on your readings and your life experiences.  I think you’ll be very happy with the level and the quality of the conversation and discourse that goes on in these discussion rooms. It’s astounding, and it’s really, really good. It’s one of the high points of the program. You will learn a lot from each other in the discussion boards. Of course, the instructor participates as well and moderates as need be.

Now, some courses will have special projects on top of this, where they will have students interact in teams and do projects together as teams. My course doesn’t, but other courses do.

I should mention a couple of other things. We have ZOOM video live chat sessions. My course has it three times over the seven weeks. Some courses have it more frequently. I don’t think any have it less frequently as far as I know. These are voluntary because the entire course is asynchronous. We want it to be as flexible as possible.  You do not have to commit to being at a certain place at a certain time.  That defeats the flexibility of the course. That said, for those who wish to have that sort of live experience, I schedule two weeks apart, three times throughout the semester 7PM-8PM live ZOOM chat session. It’s a really good technology where students log on, you get to see each other on the screen together and we go over a topic, or an issue or maybe an assignment, depending on what’s going on that week. It’s an opportunity to put a face with a name, to actually hear a voice, and to ask questions live as you would in a classroom or in an office hours setting.

Those are also an amazing opportunity to interact with one another and with the instructor. I would highly recommend that if your course does have that, you take full advantage of it. So as not to disadvantage those students who are unable to make these sessions, each and every one will be recorded, and they will be available for you to view at a later time within the course website.

Last of course, but not least, most courses including mine have a final exam.  Final exam formats vary.  A lot of times, there are essays that need to be written. They are typically submitted through TurnItIn. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that software, but basically it’s an application whereby you just have to upload your Microsoft Word document into the system and it makes its way securely to the instructor.  My final exam is a combination of short answer and essay questions, other professors may vary.

Typically, the way that would work for a final exam, it would be timed as well, but my timing is like a couple of days. Think of it as a take-home exam. The quizzes will typically give students thirty minutes to complete, ten questions in thirty minutes. The final exam, you usually have a couple of days from the day you read the exam.