Takeaways from ‘An Introduction to American Law’

Last week I finished up the 6 week course An Introduction to American Law from the University of Pennsylvania’s Open Learning initiative and hosted on Coursera. Just like my previous Coursera/UPenn courses, this one was fantastic. I even opted for the Signature Track this time…but more on that later πŸ˜‰

The course description of this MOOC is very accurate — you do in fact only need 1-2 hours a week to devote to study for this course. So it is truly a survey course and does not have the depth of even a 3 credit undergraduate, much less a graduate, course in legal studies. It was interesting because many of the course participants were either thinking about law school, so they were perhaps using the course as a “tester” of sorts; or they were international attorneys who were curious to see how American law differs from that of other countries. In my humble opinion, I feel that the course was much better suited to those who fell in the latter category, learn more about crime laws in Texas.

I myself was in another third group of course participants who pretty much made up the balance of the class. Working professionals who just wanted to expand their knowledge. Sure, I was partly motivated by the fact that I did seriously consider law school upon finishing my undergraduate degree. Oh, and my unabashed admiration of the TV show Law & Order: SVU (I have to remember to blog about that admiration one day). But the fact that I work with real estate leases day in and day out does justify the fact that some knowledge of our legal system would benefit me professionally.

So let’s get into the meat & potatoes of the course, shall we?

The course was broken into six sections: Tort Law, Contract Law, commercial lawyers, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Civil Procedure. Going into the course, I was mainly interested in the Contract, Property and Criminal Law sections. What I didn’t expect was to be thoroughly impressed by the Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure sections, which were both really enlightening.

I won’t attempt to summarize the entire course here, but I’ll list some important takeaways that I took along the way; such as:

1) The fact that the legal landscape in the United States is unique in that there are 50 state constitutions to contend with as well as the national Constitution of the United States. While this seems like a ‘no-brainer’ type of fact, especially to Americans, the truth is while in general, the individual states follow similar themes legally, they can vary in how far they apply common law across the varies realms of law. For example property and inheritance laws can vary significantly from state to state. The definitions of terms such as ‘insanity’ and ‘intent’ (especially applicable to criminal law) can vary from state to state. While our national Constitution is known for its brevity, the State of Alabama has one of the longest written constitutions in the world. So my sincerest condolences to all of the practicing lawyers and sitting judges there!

2) Criminal punishment and sanctions in the United States is among the most severe in the developed world. Again, this is one of those facts that you kind of suspect is true, but it’s still an eye-opener when it’s presented in an academic context.

3) U.S. Civil procedure makes the courtroom out to be a game where the playing field is equal once you’re on it, but there can be very unequal rules regarding who can enter. This is where the concept of arbitration clauses was discussed. What’s an arbitration clause? Well that’s that bit of legalese contained in many consumer service contracts where you agree to not bring a lawsuit against the provider to seek damages. Instead, you agree to go to arbitration; which is many times shorter in duration than a lawsuit and less expensive to the company. We also learned a bit about class action lawsuits, where a single plaintiff’s claim may not be significant; but the claim of many (hundreds or even thousands) is worth the effort of an attorney to pursue. Which brings up the issue of bringing a matter to court for the first place. If damages are low (let’s say $100-$500), then many times the plaintiff will choose to not even pursue. Why? Because the court fees and/or attorney’s fees are often much more. So in real life, only cases where the expected damages are significant even make it to court in the first place.

4) Only a small percentage of (criminal) court cases make it to trial. About 94% are settled by plea bargain. This percentage has increased over time.

5) The burden of proof varies depending on what area of law you are in. Tort law can be more lenient in awarding damages based upon the evidence than criminal law can be in issuing sanctions. While it was not brought up in the lectures, the O.J. Simpson case is a good example of this…where Mr. Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges, but still lost a civil suit and had to pay a settlement to the victims’ families.

Of course this isn’t an exhaustive list, but just the tip of the iceberg in regards to some of the key information that was highlighted to help the course participants become more knowledgeable of the American legal system. The overall goal is not to make you an expert…but to make you aware and knowledgeable about what makes the American legal system unique from many of its global counterparts.

Ok, so I mentioned earlier in this post that I opted for the Signature Track for this course. The Signature Track is basically where you pay Coursera a fee, and they offer you a Verified Certificate upon completing the course. With my previous Coursera courses, I just opted for a Statement of Accomplishment, whenever it’s available. The Statement of Accomplishment is free, and is issued by Coursera, and not the educational institution that administered the class. The difference in name really didn’t matter so much to me. Paying money really did matter to me though. I also wasn’t super thrilled with the Signature Track’s requirement to have a webcam and submit a copy of a government issued ID. However it seems that not every course is offering both options. This course was one of them. So basically, if I wanted a certificate upon successfully completing the course, initially, the Signature Track was my only option. Curiously, they changed this after the course started…and made the Statement of Accomplishment an option. However it turns out I didn’t need it. Coursera offers ‘financial aid’ to needy course takers who can’t afford the Signature Track costs. I figured that I had nothing to lose. So I applied, and it worked!

So my very first Verified Certificate from UPenn/Coursera should look something like this!

I highly recommend this course to others. It’s well worth your time…and money (if you have it) even. This is my third MOOC that I’ve hung in until completion for and I’m still convinced that these courses are more for personal and professional enrichment than to be some sort of replacement for an academic credential. They are not comparable to the content and workload that I’ve had in my online undergraduate or graduate studies. So while I give both the University of Pennsylvania and Coursera high marks for a job well done yet again, I will continue to give the side eye to those who try to say that their free, online MOOC coursework is on par with an academic program from a traditional university.


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