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The Nature of "Pre-Law" Study

The term pre-law refers to a period prior to attendance at a law school, or to the status of an undergraduate student who intends to obtain a legal education.  It does not refer to a specific major or course of study with required courses.  This is because law schools generally do not require or recommend any particular course of study or major as a requirement for admission.

Among the questions most commonly asked pre-law advisers are those concerning the most appropriate undergraduate majors, undergraduate courses to take, requirements for admission to law school, preparation for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and selection of a law school (prospective pre-law students wonder about selection of the proper undergraduate school.)  This pamphlet will attempt to address these concerns of pre-law students.

Is There a Best Undergraduate Pre-Law Major?

It is true that pre-law majors tend to be majors in certain fields more than others, but studies have shown that there is no correlation between undergraduate majors and success in law school.  Traditionally, political science, history, and economics have been the most popular pre-law majors.   Proficiency in mathematics has been helpful in taking the LSAT.  A survey of practicing lawyers once indicated a preference for English composition as the undergraduate emphasis they would choose if they were to retake their undergraduate work.

The Pre-Law Handbook states that no single curriculum is regarded as ideal, but it stresses training in analytical reasoning and writing.  Students should be able to read, write, and think and understand the forces that have shaped human experience.  The handbook recommends knowledge of the institutions and processes of government by which much of the law is made and applied.  It also emphasizes an acquaintance with American history because of the obvious link between law and historical experience.  Understanding of economics and the structure and development of economic institutions is also stressed because of the business-related content in many law school courses and in the practice of law itself.

Thus, the handbook notes that "many entering law students have college majors in political science, history, or economics, but a significant proportion have undergraduate degrees in philosophy, anthropology, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, English, psychology, business, sociology, the natural sciences, or other disciplines."

What Courses are the Best for Pre-Law Students?

Law schools are interested in whether an applicant has pursued an intellectually rigorous course of study that demonstrates the academic background, skills, and intelligence to succeed in law school and beyond.  Law schools often do recommend taking courses from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.  And in part because of the tasks that lawyers perform--counseling, advocacy, drafting legal instruments, negotiating, and problem solving among others--law schools usually stress that their students be proficient in the communication skills of writing and speaking.

In this statement on pre-legal education, the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) asserts that quality in undergraduate pre-law education should be related to the development of basic skills and insights, including those involving words, the institutions and values involved with law, and thinking.  The AALS statement concludes that development of these basic skills is not monopolized by any academic discipline but is the result of intense and individual intellectual effort.

A University of Nebraska folder entitled "The Pre-Law Student: How to Prepare for Law School" emphasizes that undergraduate students should take courses from instructors who make them think, no matter what the fields of those teachers may be.  The authors of that folder also stress courses that develop communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills.  They also state: "The best major ... is the one in which you are most interested."

Although the official law school position is negative toward the "so-called" undergraduate law-related courses, most law students and practitioners have benefited by taking a course or two (such as constitutional law in political science or business law in the business administration college), that is taught by the case method approach.  This is due to the fact that (1) the majority of law school courses are taught using at least a modified form of the case method approach and (2) the law student is plunged immediately into a curriculum using such a system.  If students have had no experience in using the case method, they may face a major adjustment problem.

Also undergraduate courses in the areas in which law overlaps with government or business give students a "feel" for the law as well as for law school subjects, which usually involve government and\or business.  Pre-Law students are well advised to avoid the extremes of taking all the "law" courses they can find in the curriculum (the "maximally prepared law student" or "practitioner's" position).

Law School Admission:  The Big Two

Law schools base most of their admission decisions on two factors:  The applicant's undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and their scores on the Law School Admission Tests.  Although schools weigh these variables differently, generally the two are equal in importance.  Typically a sliding scale is applied by which a high GPA will counterbalance a low LSAT score, and vice versa.

Since a high undergraduate GPA is the factor that is more controllable by undergraduate students, their emphasis on attaining such a goal is understandable.  Since students tend to do well in courses in which they are interested, they are well advised to select a major and courses to which they are naturally attracted (subject to the above qualifications).  Don't take courses strictly because you think they are "good for pre-law," since you may change your mind about going to law school, or about staying there after you arrive, or you may not be admitted in the first place.

Although some students are accepted or rejected soon after their applications are completed on the basis of superior or inferior compliance with the "Big Two" requirements, the majority of applicants fall into a middle ground.  Law school admissions committees spend most of their time reviewing the qualifications of these "middle ground" students .  As to those students, admissions committees not only focus on the "Big Two" but also on variables such as the difficulty and nature of courses taken; assessment of the caliber of undergraduate institutions; trends in college performance (e.g., how did the applicants fare in their junior year?); extracurricular activities; personal qualifications and accomplishments; letters of recommendation; graduate work ethnic, gender, or geographic diversity; and relationships with law school alumni.

How Does One Prepare for the LSAT?

The LSAT is offered four times per year.  Students should consider taking it in the summer following their junior year or in the fall (usually October) of their senior year.  However, taking it in December or February of the senior year is not too late for scores to reach law schools before admissions committees make most of their decisions.  Students wishing to take preparatory courses offered by private firms or to peruse one or more of the abundant manuals with sample questions (in addition to those in the LSAT application packet) should allow themselves sufficient lead time for those purposes.  At a minimum, applicants should take available sample tests and study the LSAT registration materials for tips on test-taking and information about the exam's design, components, and question types.

Where Should I Go to Law School?

This question generally is asked as undergraduate students approach "upper class" status, and by its nature it can understandably be addressed later, but some generalizations are in point here.

First, the answer to this question can be foreclosed or limited in scope by the Big Two marks that pre-law majors make as undergraduates.  Law schools have been ranked as (1) national (Chicago, Berkeley, e.g.), (2) state (MU, Iowa), and (3) local (St. Paul College of Law), in descending order of selectivity.  The Pre-Law Handbook (which considers all ABA-approved law schools from these three categories as "national" in the sense that schools must satisfy certain uniform criteria to be approved) includes tables for most ABA-approved law schools.  These tables indicate the likelihood of applicant's acceptance by law schools for various combinations of Big Two criteria (LSAT exam score and GPA).  Thus pre-law students whose Big Two criteria have been determined can discern at a glance which schools they should not consider.

Second, UCM's pre-law seniors usually submit applications to the University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Missouri-Kansas City law schools.  This is not due entirely to familiarity.  If law students expect to practice law in a particular state, there are several reasons (such as establishing an occupational network and learning the home state's law) for attendance at the state's public university law schools.

Third, "national" law schools tend to be more theoretically oriented and more likely to emphasize the importance of learning to "think like a lawyer."  "State" schools tend to place relatively greater stress on coverage of "black letter" law and preparation for such mundane activities as passing the state's bar examination and mastering the "practical" skills of the lawyer.  These distinctions may be eroding, in part because of the tendency for law students at both types of institutions to obtain clerkships while attending law school.

Can Law Students Specialize?

A related question often asked advisers concerns the types of specialization that are associated with certain schools and/or the degree to which specialization is possible while attending law school.  Generally speaking, this should be a minor factor in selecting a law school.  For one thing, specialization is difficult to achieve while attending law school, at least in the context of selecting courses.  First-year courses are for the most part prescribed, and roughly half of the second-year courses are also required.  Beyond the required courses, students' ability to elect courses is constrained by the desire to pass the bar exam upon graduation.  Topics on the bar examination are announced in advance, and the wary student is well advised to take courses involving as many of those topics as possible.  If taken, such advice thereby further limits law students' ability to elect courses and specialize by taking several in one area.

Even practitioners are limited in their ability to specialize in fields of their choice during first years with a firm.  Moreover, unlike medicine, the legal profession does not recognize or certify legal specializations.

To some extent these generalizations about the difficulty of specialization during law school have been countered in recent years by such factors as (1) tendencies in recent years for law students to "clerk" with private firms or with judges while attending law school, (2) establishment of pro bono or clinical programs in conjunction with legal education, (3) a proliferation of course offerings along with an increase in faculty size, and (4) reliance by some students on bar review courses rather than on formal course work in preparation for bar exams.

Pre-Law Advising at UCM

From the standpoint of the pre-law student, Central's students have been fortunate in attending a university employing more than ten professors with law degrees.  Several of these holders of the JD or LLB degree have agreed to serve as official pre-law advisers, and these have been found in the ranks of such disparate colleges as Arts and Sciences, Business Administration, and Education and Human Services.  UCM's pre-law students would be well advised to consult with as many of these advisers as possible, as well as to talk with others involved inside and outside of the legal profession.  The Department of Political Science's pre-law advisor is Dr. James B. Staab.  His office is located in Wood Building, Room 8C, and he has plenty of resources to share with interested students.

An active pre-law club on campus exists as well as an organization designed more for future legal secretaries.  The (pre) Law Students Association consists of persons interested in the law, whether they intend to make it their profession as an attorney, paralegal, or secretary; or whether they have merely a general interest in the subject.

It's Up to You!

One way or the other, as a UCM student, you have at your disposal continuing sources of pre-law information, guidance and inspiration.  The perspiration in pursuit of a future law-related career or of a lifelong interest in the law is up to you!