From the excellent Law School Toolbox website:
Understanding what classes you will encounter in your first year will give you the one-up on the rest of your classmates. You do not need a full, in-depth understanding about what these classes entail, especially since each law school follows a different curriculum. However, it is a good idea to understand an overview of each course so you feel comfortable on your first day and comprehend the context of this subject of law. One of the first classes you encounter as a 1L is Criminal Law.
Different than TV??
Unlike many other 1L courses like Torts, most incoming 1Ls have had the most exposure to Criminal Law and feel the most comfortable with this subject. Why is this? Well, many legal dramas revolve around crime and the legal system (think Law & Order, any detective show, etc.). However, the “criminal law” you see on TV versus the Criminal Law you will see in class and in your casebook are vastly different. Yes, there will still be crimes of murder, theft, rape, etc. but how you study them and engage in the subject are much different that how Detective Benson solves crimes. It is best to keep this in mind at the forefront, that way you aren’t confused halfway through the semester.
Common Law Rules (!)
To make law school more confusing for 1Ls, Criminal Law is divided into two jurisdiction categories: MPC-based jurisdictions (more on this in a minute) and Common Law based jurisdictions. I highly (HIGHLY) suggest separating these in your mind and notes right from the get-go because you will need to know both come exam time, and it can be very confusing trying to figure out both. Common law jurisdictions are states in which their statutes are based off the “common law” or judge’s decisions from previous cases. Basically, the common law is based on how other cases were decided and set precedent.
The Good, the Bad, and the MPC
The other side of Criminal Law is based on the MPC. In 1962, a group of Criminal Law scholars came together to create the “MPC” or the Model Penal Code. This is a code that formulates all offenses, elements, defenses, and information on crimes in a concise, organized manner. The intention was to consolidate the authority on Criminal Law so that decisions would be more regulated and consistent, rather than the Common Law counterpart. However, many states did not completely adopt the MPC but have created their own penal code with MPC influence.