Advice to the Pre-Law Student

A college student writes asking for pre-law advice:

Hi. My name is —— ——- and I am a freshman at Framingham State College in Massachusetts. In my expository writing class we were assigned a paper in which we have to research our future career goals. A part of the requirement is a personal interview which can be done via email. At Framingham State I am an English major and I aspire to get my JD in law. I would like to be a criminal defense lawyer. If you have the time could you please respond to a few of my questions?

1. What are the most popular majors that apply to law school?
2. Which major do you feel would be the most useful/helpful?
3. What could I do in college that would help me get into the school?
4. What is the most challenging aspect of law school?
5. What would people be surprised to know about studying law or working in law?

I really appreciate if you could get back to me. The assignment is due October 1st.

Thank you,

—— ——-

So I replied. My answers are below; readers are invited to supply better answers so I can use them next time.

1. What are the most popular majors that apply to law school?

Popular doesn't mean “good” — it just means that many people who go to law school chose it. History and political science are very popular; law schools often prefer people with more diverse interests, however. [I didn't comment on the infelicity of the question. Maybe I should have given that the writer is an English major. Then again, s/he is only a Freshman, and it's early in the year.]

2. Which major do you feel would be the most useful/helpful?

Anything that teaches writing and logic is good. Anything with the word “pre” in its name is awful. Criminal Justice is an extremely poor choice too.

3. What could I do in college that would help me get into the school?

See where I wrote:

If you really want to be a good lawyer, I don't personally recommend majoring in anything directly related to law as an undergraduate, or even taking courses in it. That includes “Juvenile Justice”. Colleges always teach the stuff “wrong” from the point of view of a lawyer – maybe right from the point of view of a cop or probation officer or something, but wrong from the point of view of someone who needs to work with law rather than recite it. So you will start out behind the other students since you will have to 'unlearn' what you think you know. Really.

Far, far, better to major in something that teaches you about the world: history, economics, literature, math or even art. You will get all the law you need in law school – why waste college getting a 3rd-rate version of it? Why not get the stuff that makes you a well informed person, and thus a much better lawyer in the long run.

The only rule that over-rides the one above is: major in what you like best. Because ultimately you will get the best grades in what you like best, and grades count! A lot. A whole lot. Especially if you are not going to college at a very high prestige Ivy League or similar school.

If possible – it's not essential – I'd try to take the following courses at some point regardless of what you major in:

* two semesters of economics
* at least one Intro to Philosophy and/or Political Philosophy
* as much US history as you can stand (law is about context, and precedents must be understood in the context of their times)
* a course that covers the structure of the US political/governmental system

Big bonus points if you can manage a course in basic statistics.

I also very highly recommend you subscribe to a first-rate national newspaper and read it every day (your college may have a student discount deal). You will learn essential information about the political and legal system without even realizing how much you are learning. The New York Times is the best, but if your interests are more business oriented then the Wall St. Journal or the Financial Times are ok too. Local papers don't really have enough national and international news to cut it.

4. What is the most challenging aspect of law school?

It is a lot of work. You can't slack off like in college.

5. What would people be surprised to know about studying law or working in law?

1) The economics of it are not as good as they used to be: the hours are up, the pay is headed down.

2) Law is much more flexible than most people think – it's not just about looking up the rules and applying them.

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9 Responses to Advice to the Pre-Law Student

  1. Joe1 says:

    I would recommend two semesters of accounting, simply to prepare for the business aspects of practicing or representing clients. Also, I would recommend that anybody thinking about going to law school get into the habit of reading anything and everything that comes their way. I avoid romance novels, most westerns, and most textbooks about particle physics. I’ll read anything else, including materials about other scientific disciplines. I’ve also been known to read the bible to compare it with various topics and themes in science fiction short stories and novels. I went to law school with a few non-readers; they were interesting, but no good at small talk between classes.

  2. Just me says:

    The best advice I could give someone interested in law school is to be very careful about the law school they choose. I would not recommend that anyone go to a private law school unless 1) it is a Harvard/Yale caliber school; or 2) mom and dad will pay.

    The practice of law, as Michael pointed out, is not as lucrative (for most lawyers) as people believe. Carrying six figure student loans limits your future options. I, for instance, wanted to work as a prosecutor or public defender for a few years when I got out of law school. However, when I got my final student loan package and finally digested the repayment information, it became clear that I could not afford to do that without moving back into my parents’ house. So, for now I am stuck at a medium/large firm (making good money, btw), but doing work that I don’t particularly enjoy.

  3. michael says:

    Even if this is right (and it may vary depending how badly someone wants to be a lawyer), on its own terms it demands an addition, “or (3) you get a good scholarship package.”

    Incidentally, I worked in a big firm for three years and saved a lot of money. You can get some options back if you are lucky and know how to be a tightwad. Plus, some public sector jobs — especially with the feds — do pay a decent wage. Legal Services here is very hard to get a job with, and they work hard, but their salaries are better than you might think.

    But thinking law degree automatically equals big bucks — that is an error.

    I wonder, though, is working in a largish firm making good money really such a frightening cautionary tale?

  4. Just me says:

    LOL…it was not intended as a horror story. Yes, the scholarship package should be a definite No. 3, and “working in a largish firm making good money” is, in fact, not the worst thing in the world.

    Good luck to the young man/woman that inspired this post.

  5. Rhodo Zeb says:

    The most common majors that I think are useful are economics, English and philosophy.

    Econ helps you see the efficiency in common law rules, and was pretty helpful for me. I could find familiar order in the structures of law. But the English majors wrote better essays than me (econ is pretty famous for keeping things succinct) and I suspect the few philosophy majors were able to get perhaps a big-picture understanding that escaped me, as well as writing better essays than me.

    Joe1’s advice is spot on. The accounting would have helped but law can go in a lot of different directions, so if you are business-minded then definitely, otherwise its not necessary for law school itself.

    In addition to the ban on any ‘pre-‘ majors, I would add political science, however I am probably somewhat biased as econ and poli sci are in competition. But poli sci, to my thinking, will not help you to argue your way out of a paper bag in a legal discussion.

    Just to bolster this assertion, 5 years ago I interviewed with a pretty big firm in BJ, and the managing partner mentioned the masters he had gotten in poli sci prior, I believe, to getting his JD. And I reflexively said something along the lines of ‘oh I am sorry’, and he replied that, yes, it was worthless. Given our relative positions I do not think he was saying that to avoid conflict.

    Now it should be noted that any science-related or computer fields are great, they won’t help you in law school much but will after you finish, there are so few people with these kinds of combinations of knowledge that it opens up a lot of opportunities.

    Indeed, we need more math people in law! I am sure that would be a good thing.

    Oh, and reading is indeed a very useful and fun skill. I have always been an inveterate reader of nearly anything I can wrap my brain around. Get the New Yorker and maybe Harpers; long, in-depth articles on anything and everything. All that knowledge helps.

  6. Rhodo Zeb says:

    Ah, it should be ‘better essays than I’. 😉

    Damn those English majors!

  7. Michael says:

    I violently disagree with the comment about computer science not helping you in law school. I believe my training as a programmer was one of the things that best prepared me for law school. Programming is in part about logic flow, and that is a very very good discipline to bring to law.

    The downside about AI majors is that you may not have to do a lot of essay-writing; so a computer geek who can write becomes a legal star, but a computer geek who can’t write is in Big Trouble.

    I suspect the same is true for most other sciences.

  8. Rhodo Zeb says:

    Ah, ok I can see that. Apologies, I was speaking about science in general and tacked on computers just before posting.

  9. Joe1 says:

    How about this: I have a cousin who graduated from Harvard Law School and had majored in history at Berkeley after he decided to finish his BA after an seven year haitus after high school. (He played guitar and piano professionally during the hiatus). He finished his BA in three years, while working, and he finished Harvard. He also won the pinball championship at Harvard Law in his second year. He is a systems engineer at a software firm in the Boston area and for relaxation has a private pilot’s license. At one time, he owned a single engine airplane, but no longer. He has three brothers who followed the traditional path to law school, but the non-traditional path worked for him.

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