Students thinking about law school often ask what subjects they should take or what majors they should select as preparation for law school. What follows are the facts and some advice about preparing for law school.
In most cases, you must have an undergraduate degree to be admitted to law school. However, law schools do not require any particular course of study or major as a prerequisite for admission. Whatever course of study you pursue as an undergraduate, you will be eligible for law school, so it is never too late to choose law as a career.
Basic Skills of a Lawyer
Whatever your major course of study, there are things you can do to prepare yourself for law school and for the legal profession itself. What are the skills you will need to be a good law student and a good attorney?
Mastery of Language
Language is the lawyer's working tool. Lawyers spend their time drafting legal instruments such as contracts or wills, engaging in oral and written arguments, and speaking to and on behalf of their clients. Thus, the lawyer must be able to communicate in a clear and concise manner. In law school and in the practice of law, you will need to speak and write logically and persuasively.
If you are considering law school, you should develop your ability to write. You must be able to write clearly and correctly. You must be able to write in order to explain, to inform and to persuade. You must also learn to write quickly. Law school and legal practice will require you to write often and under rigid deadlines. You should take every opportunity to work on your writing skills.
Oral communication is also an important skill of a lawyer. The law student and the lawyer must be able to present their views and those of their clients clearly, forcefully and persuasively. You must learn to speak using proper English. The lawyer will speak in formal settings where proper English is important for effective communication. You want your law professor or the jury to focus on what you say and not be distracted by your poor grammar or slang expressions.
Therefore, you should work to overcome any fear of public speaking or of expressing and defending your views in public. The more one speaks in public, the easier it becomes. Do not avoid opportunities to speak before an audience. Use them to improve your oral skills.
Understanding of Human Institutions and Human Nature
Lawyers do not work in isolation. The law regulates human activity and shapes human institutions. The lawyer must have a keen sense of human values and an understanding of human nature. Serving clients who are caught up in difficult or emotional circumstances requires that the lawyer respond with compassion, sensitivity and understanding. The lawyer must often try to predict how individuals will react to certain situations. So the lawyer must be prepared by both education and experience to understand how and why persons behave as they do.
Skill in Creative and Analytical Thinking
Problem-solving is an important part of a lawyer's work, and the good lawyer is one who can do more than just advise the client whether a particular course of action is legal or illegal. The lawyer is often called upon to help accomplish the client's objectives within the limits of the law. This requires skills in research, fact gathering, deductive and inductive reasoning and critical analysis. You must be able to distance yourself from the heat of an argument in order to bring reason to bear in a dispute.
In sum, these three basic skills are important for whatever career you might choose to pursue, but they are crucial to the role of a lawyer. Thus you should do what is necessary to acquire and refine these skills. But what does that mean in real terms? What course of study or major might you pursue as an undergraduate?
Undergraduate Courses and Majors
To repeat, law schools do not require any particular courses or majors as a prerequisite for admission. Studies show that there is no correlation between the undergraduate major and success in law school. This means that a law school cannot predict that history majors will do better than chemical engineers or that political science majors will do better than math majors. What law schools look for is whether your course of study was a rigorous intellectual experience which demonstrates that you have the academic skills and the intelligence to pursue a legal education. So there is no "edge" to be gained by selecting one major over another.
The University of Southern Indiana, along with some other universities, permit you to declare that you are a pre-law student. However, there is no pre-law major. Rather, those students interested in law school may declare a pre-law minor, join the pre-law club and become involved in activities related to law. Again, pre-law students can be majoring in business, one of the arts or sciences or any other course of study.
The best major or course of study for you is the one in which you are most interested. Good grades are an important criterion for admission to law school and chances are you will do best in a field that you enjoy. Although your choice of major may not give you an edge, the content and design of your overall undergraduate experience is very important.
You should obviously take courses that will help develop your communication and thinking skills. You can do this in any major by carefully selecting electives that are designed to teach you to better communicate your ideas. You should also take courses that require you to use your analytical and problem-solving skills. These are courses which make you think about the subject matter as well as communicating the subject matter itself.
You should also plan your overall curriculum so you receive a broad liberal education. As noted earlier, a lawyer must be able to appreciate human nature and human values. Therefore, whatever your major, you should take some courses in the humanities and social sciences, and you should sample a variety of different disciplines. If you do not know much about how businesses operate, you might take a survey course so you will better understand the background when you take business law coursed in law school. You might take a survey course in political science to get a better idea of how government works and is organized. Since lawyers are increasingly working in an international setting, you should take undergraduate courses that will give you an international perspective. In addition, lawyers who are fluent in a foreign language will certainly have an advantage in the years ahead.
You are not required or expected to take law-related courses as an undergraduate. Some students take an undergraduate course in business law or constitutional law to see if they are really interested in the legal approach. However, these courses are often taught differently than in law school. Still, they do expose you to the subject matter of the law, so one or two such courses may be helpful.
In short, the best advice is to:
Lawyers, more than most other professionals, are called upon to render public service. A high percentage of public officials are lawyers, and you will often find lawyers engaged in activities on behalf of their churches, neighbors and communities. Lawyers are looked to for organizational skills and for leadership. You can begin to develop these skills during your undergraduate experience by participating in extracurricular activities. Of course, you should not allow these activities to interfere with your academic work. You will know best how to strike the proper balance.
Law as a Career Choice
Uncertainty about the choice of a career is not unusual for college students. You will have a variety of experiences as an undergraduate that will help you to discover your talents and interests and to decide whether the legal profession is something you want to consider. Most students, even after they enter law school, remain uncertain about the exact nature of their future career. In fact, about 15 to 20 percent of law school graduates never practice law. However, they usually find that their legal education has helped them in their careers in business, journalism, teaching or other fields.
You do not have to be a backslapping extrovert to be a good lawyer. Many of the most able, successful attorneys are quiet, soft-spoken people. In law school and in the profession, your success will depend on your willingness to work hard on behalf of your clients.
The legal profession is increasingly open to members of racial minorities, and competition for qualified minority law graduates is intense. Special programs are available to help prepare minority applicants for law school. Currently, about half of law students are women. Older persons seeking a second career are also increasingly common in law school.
Applying to Law School
To enter law school, you will need to start the admissions process at least a year before you want to enroll. This means you should start the process near the end of your junior year. You must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which is a national standardized aptitude test given four times a year. It is best to take the test either in the summer (usually June) at the end of the junior year or the fall (usually October) at the start of the senior year. LSAT registration and information booklets are available from the Political Science and Public Administration Department.