Selecting a Major

Pre-law students often assume that a certain major will give them an advantage both getting into law school and as a law student. This assumption is a mistaken one.

Menu

While law schools do focus heavily on LSAT scores and GPAs, they are far less concerned about an applicant’s major. Unlike an LSAT score, which correlates with a student’s performance during the first year of law school, there is no such correlation between an undergraduate major and success in law school. Students who are successful in law school and who become accomplished lawyers have majored in subjects that are traditionally considered paths to law school, such as political science, history, English, philosophy, or economics, while others have majored in areas as diverse as art, music, Biblical studies, physics, and biology. Mastering any discipline in-depth is useful experience for law school.

You should major in a discipline that interests you for several reasons. First, law schools don’t care about your major. Second, you may ultimately decide not to go to law school, and it would be a shame to major in a discipline just because you thought you should for law school. Third, law schools do care about your GPA, and presumably you will achieve your full potential academically in a discipline that engages you.

Undergraduate Law Courses

You should not take undergraduate law courses or the courses in the Pre-Law Studies Certificate Program unless such a course of study interests you and is not preventing you from taking courses that interest you more. While these courses are rigorous and have academic value, they will not give you an edge in getting into law school or give you a sustaining advantage in law school. However, if these courses do not interest you, you should understand why or reexamine your motives for going to law school.

Some of these courses will introduce you to subjects and materials that you will encounter in law school, so you will have the benefit in law school of hearing legal terms and concepts for the second time rather than for the first time. For example, Business Law at Wheaton College parallels a first year contracts course at law school and Constitutional Law at Wheaton College covers many of the same cases as a first year constitutional law course at law school. Further, in both undergraduate law courses, students learn how to read and analyze appellate court opinions, which is an essential skill for law school.

However, law school will quickly teach you the skills that you learn in undergraduate law courses and more. Further, the students in these undergraduate law courses are not law students and the classroom exchange is different from what you will encounter in law school. So, while the subjects in undergraduate law courses and law school courses may be similar, they are taught using different materials, in different settings, in different manners, and for different purposes.

Critical Skills and Abilities

What law schools will consider is whether your course of study was rigorous enough to demonstrate your intelligence and to provide you with the skills necessary to pursue a legal education. So, although your choice of a major will not give you an advantage in law school, the design of your overall undergraduate course work is very important.

The core skills that are essential for law school and practicing law are analytic and problem-solving skills, critical reading abilities, writing skills, oral communications and listening abilities, general research skills, and task organization and project management skills. The Pre-Law Committee of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar states the following about each of these core skills1:

Analytic and Problem Solving Skills

Students should seek courses and other experiences that will engage them in critical thinking about important issues, that will engender in them tolerance for uncertainty, and that will give them experience in structuring and evaluating arguments for and against propositions that are susceptible to reasoned debate. Students also should seek courses and other experiences that require them to apply previously developed principles or theories to new situations, and that demand that they develop solutions to new problems. Good legal education teaches students to "think like a lawyer", but the analytic and problem-solving skills required of lawyers are not fundamentally different from those employed by other professionals. The law school experience will develop and refine those crucial skills, but one must enter law school with a reasonably well developed set of analytic and problem solving abilities.

Critical Reading Abilities

Preparation for legal education should include substantial experience at close reading and critical analysis of complex textual material, for much of what law students and lawyers do involves careful reading and sophisticated comprehension of judicial opinions, statutes, documents, and other written materials. As with the other skills discussed in this Statement, the requisite critical reading abilities may be acquired in a wide range of experiences, including the close reading of complex material in literature, political or economic theory, philosophy, or history. The particular nature of the materials examined is not crucial; what is important is that law school not be the first time that a student has been rigorously engaged in the enterprise of carefully reading and understanding, and critically analyzing, complex written material of substantial length. Potential law students should also be aware that the study and practice of law require the ability to read and assimilate large amounts of material, often in a short period of time.

Writing Skills

Those seeking to prepare for legal education should develop a high degree of skill at written communication. Language is the most important tool of a lawyer, and lawyers must learn to express themselves clearly and concisely. Legal education provides good training in writing, and particularly in the specific techniques and forms of written expression that are common in the law. Fundamental writing skills, however, should be acquired and refined before one enters law school. Those preparing for legal education should seek as many experiences as possible that will require rigorous and analytical writing, including preparing original pieces of substantial length and revising written work in response to constructive criticism.

Oral Communication and Listening Abilities

The ability to speak clearly and persuasively is another skill that is essential to success in law school and the practice of law. Lawyers also must have excellent listening skills if they are to understand their clients and others with whom they must interact daily. As with writing skills, legal education provides excellent opportunities for refining oral communication skills, and particularly for practicing the forms and techniques of oral expression that are most common in the practice of law. Before coming to law school, however, individuals should seek to develop their basic speaking and listening skills, such as by engaging in debate, making formal presentations in class, or speaking before groups in school, the community, or the workplace.

General Research Skills

Although there are many research sources and techniques that are specific to the law, an individual need not have developed any familiarity with these specific skills or materials before entering law school. However, the individual who comes to law school without ever having undertaken a project that requires significant library research and the analysis of large amounts of information obtained from that research will be at a severe disadvantage. Those wishing to prepare for legal education should select courses and seek experiences that will require them to plan a research strategy, to undertake substantial library research, and to analyze, organize and present a reasonably large amount of material. A basic ability to use a personal computer is also increasingly important for law students, both for word processing and for computerized legal research.

Task Organization and Project Management Skills

The study and practice of law require the ability to organize large amounts of information, to identify objectives, and to create a structure for applying that information in an efficient way in order to achieve desired results. Many law school courses, for example, are graded primarily on the basis of one examination at the end of the course, and many projects in the practice of law require the compilation of large amounts of information from a wide variety of sources, frequently over relatively brief periods of time. Thus, those entering law school must be prepared to organize and assimilate large amounts of information in a manner that facilitates the recall and application of that information in an effective and efficient manner. Some of the requisite experience can be obtained through undertaking school projects that require substantial research and writing, or through the preparation of major reports for an employer, a school, or a civic organization.

Ultimately, according to the American Bar Association, taking difficult courses from demanding instructors is the best generic preparation for a legal education.

1Preparation for Legal Education, American Bar Association, Pre-Law Committee of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, http://www.abanet.org/legaled/prelaw/prep.html (accessed March 31, 2005)

 

Media Center