When it comes to law school electives, some, it seems, are much more useful than others (from a big law firm’s perspective anyways).

In a study published last week by Harvard Law professors John C. Coates IV, Jesse M. Fried, and Kathryn E. Spier sought to answer the question, “which law school classes should you take?” by asking 124 attorneys at eleven elite firms to rate the “usefulness” of various Harvard Law classes. The answer makes me feel better about avoiding constitutional law classes (UChicago, blessedly, doesn’t require them).

If you want to be useful to a firm (and make your life easier in the process), consider skipping the traditional elective subjects and taking classes on accounting, corporate finance, and financial statement analysis instead. The first part of the study ranked seven of Harvard’s “business methods” courses on a scale on 1 to 5, 5 being the most useful.

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[Source: The Crimson]

The surprise here for me is teamwork, which I supposed I had learned well enough in kindergarten, but looking to the top of the list, we see accounting in the #1 spot. Almost all the lawyers surveyed, regardless of whether they were in commercial practice or litigation, emphasized the importance of accounting above all. This is what one 30-year partner at a top firm had to say:

The biggest deficiency from my HLS education (many years ago) was the lack of any serious education in Accounting. All that was offered was a half-semester course in basic double-entry bookkeeping, which was a joke. Yet, Accounting is absolutely central to commercial life and for lawyers whose practice involves commerce, it is essential.

While he apparently had the luxury of picking up these skills on the job, newly minted lawyers may be much better off laying a good foundation in law school. Those at elite schools will interview for firm positions before they’ve had a chance to take electives, but securing useful knowledge could make you more confident during your summer program and early employment.

Other than “business methods” courses, business organization type classes also ranked among the most useful: corporations, mergers and acquisition and securities regulation all scored above a “4” in usefulness. By contrast, courses that are traditionally popular electives scored much lower– administrative law, patent law, and copyright law all scored below 3.5, while constitutional law, labor law and environmental law were all below 3.

Despite the ratings, those lawyers interviewed frequently deemphasized the importance of choosing electives solely to prepare for practice. As one respondent said, there is “value to having students develop their analytical abilities both within those more practice-focused realms and within areas of more academic interest (e.g., Islamic law).”

For those going into 2L year, this study is definitely worth a read. Here is the link again:


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    • Joshua Craven on

      There are certainly areas where immigration law intersects with tax law, business law, employment law, investment law, visas & employment eligibility, etc… in which case a background in accounting might come in handy.

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