“He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn
is in great danger.”
— Confucius

First-Year Courses

During orientation, the 1Ls are split into six class sections and eight legal writing sections. You are randomly assigned to a small section that normally consists of about 35 students. You then share the same schedule with those students (with the possible exception of legal writing) for your entire first year. First-year courses are generally composed of two of the small sections, but every section has one class that is composed only of members of that section. In addition to class scheduling, your small section also competes as a team in the Duke Law Softball League!

You will take eight courses during your first year. One course, Professional Development, meets sporadically during lunch throughout the year and requires several small writing assignments. Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing meets during the first half of both the fall and spring semesters. The remaining six courses are divided equally between the semesters. More information on these core courses is found below, and the full first-year curriculum is available on the Duke Law website.

Don’t forget!

  • Look out for emails about activating and logging into your Duke email account—you are likely to receive emails from your professors prior to the beginning of classes.
  • Read your syllabuses as soon as possible, and refer to them frequently throughout the semester. It’s likely that you’ll have some assignments for the first day!


This course provides the means for addressing any civil wrong other than a breach of contract. Each professor teaches their course differently, but typical subjects include assault, battery, trespass, negligence, the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and strict liability suits. These torts lie at the heart of personal litigation, and often involve absurd and unbelievable fact patterns.


More than any other first-year course, Contracts provides the conceptual underpinning for many different types of legal careers. It is only through contracts that parties can bind each other to certain conduct while ensuring proper warranties, limitations, and remedies. Like learning a foreign language, the terminology can seem confusing at first—but taken together, it creates a system of rules essential for modern society.

Civil Procedure

This course covers the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the ways in which those rules are interpreted. These rules govern the life cycle of a lawsuit in federal court from filing in the proper jurisdiction, to motions to dismiss, to discovery, to summary judgment, and beyond. Though these rules often seem abstract, this is likely the first-year course with the most practical importance for potential litigators.

Constitutional Law

This course examines the foundation for our modern system of government and is often divided into two parts. The first focuses on the powers of the federal government as delegated to it by the Commerce, Necessary and Proper, and Spending Clauses of the Constitution. The second focuses on the explicit limits placed upon the power of the government by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. The decisions of the Supreme Court will be closely examined, praised, and criticized. 


Though the focus of this course is on real property, discussions of personal and intellectual property are not uncommon. The way professors teach this course varies, though many strive to marry a philosophical and theoretical understanding of different ownership regimes with the present rules surrounding nuisance, deeds, and the “bundle of sticks” that comprises property rights.

Criminal Law

Of all the first-year courses, this is the one most likely to ruin your enjoyment of legal shows. The crimes outlined in the Model Penal Code and discussed in class include arson, burglary, rape, criminal assault and battery, and various levels of homicide. Though a large portion of the class focuses on the standard definitions of these crimes, many professors include time for discussion of the benefits and shortcomings of our prosecutorial and penal systems.

Legal Analysis, Research & Writing

This course meets for the first half of both the fall and spring terms. Expect your semesters to be extremely front-loaded—two big writing assignments are due just after the mid-semester breaks. You will also have a trial brief due toward towards the beginning of the spring semester, and several research assignments over the course of the year. Though it may seem less pressing than your other courses, we cannot emphasize enough that you should not procrastinate in this class. Legal writing is conceptually, linguistically, and practically different from the writing you did in undergraduate courses, and it will likely take several rounds of editing and conversations with your professor to shake your old habits. If you invest the time, however, good writing skills are something that you will carry with you for the entirety of your legal career.

Required and Recommended Courses

After your 1L year, you will have more flexibility in choosing your classes. Duke offers a wide variety of courses in different subject areas, from the abstract “Social Choice Theory” to “Sports and the Law” and hands-on clinics. Sadly, with only four semesters available, you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which courses to take and subject areas to focus on. Though the proper course distribution will depend largely on your interests, there are some offerings that are widely recognized as useful for bar passage and being a well-rounded lawyer.


Following the 2008 financial crisis, in which unscrupulous lawyers played no small part, the American Bar Association revised its law school accreditation requirements. Part of this overhaul required that students take at least a 2 credit course in Ethics to graduate. Duke offers a variety of 2 and 3 credit ethics courses with slightly different focuses, though the Model Rules of Professional Conduct are at least partially covered in each one. Ethics is also a prerequisite or corequisite for many of the experiential clinics.

Business Associations

Business has always played a critical role in American society, and this course provides a look at how the dozens of organizations we interact with every day operate under the hood. The experience with this course varies widely by professor, though all cover the principal-agent relationship, the formation and governance of partnerships and corporations, the limits of fiduciary duties, and the business judgment rule.

Administrative Law

Similar to Civil Procedure, this course has a reputation for being abstract. At its heart, however, it offers a critical understanding of how the government does anything. Just as Business Associations provides an understanding of private enterprise, Administrative Law provides the foundation for the public sphere. If you plan on interacting with the government at all in your life (and you will), we cannot recommend this course enough.


Particularly helpful for the bar exam, this course covers the Sixth Amendment and the Federal Rules of Evidence, and how they govern what information can and cannot come before a jury. Learning how to assess and argue for and against the relevance and reliability of evidence is crucial for prosecuting or defending any case. This class pairs well with advanced trial practice courses.

Federal Income Taxation

A prerequisite for many of the more advanced federal tax courses, this class is actually far more interesting than the subject alone would imply. Though the American income tax code is notoriously complex, this class provides an understanding of all the things that you can do with money—from charitable donations to gifts to business expenses—through the lens of the taxpayer. In other words, you.


The week before classes resume properly in January, Duke offers a variety of courses that you can take to further round out your legal education. These courses typically take 6 hours of class time, are worth 0.5 credits, and are assessed on a Pass / Fail basis. The offerings vary by year, and are a great opportunity to introduce yourself to subjects that you may not wish to spend a full semester on in a low pressure environment.