Last updated: July 7, 2013
One of the best features of pre-legal education is that it contains absolutely no requirements or restrictions. One can major in literally any field and take any course or program offered, and subsequently be admitted to a fine law school and become a top-notch lawyer. Conversely, there is no subject or major that an applicant cannot take or admissions officers might frown upon. Many pre-law students major in Political Science, History, or English, but this is only advisable if you like these areas of study and wish to concentrate in them. Majors in the traditional pre-law areas will neither be helped nor hindered in the admissions process. What counts, of course, is how well the person performs in his/her chosen field of study.
I would also advise against selecting courses or majors in the hope that the skills stressed or talents acquired will help later in law school. Here again, one course is as good as another. Granted, History or English majors will have ample opportunity to develop their writing ability through term papers. Engineers and Chemistry majors, however, will reach law school accustomed to the problem solving and daily recitation that is standard in first-year law classes. It was my experience that students who majored in the sciences developed skills of analysis and logic that worked to their advantage in law school. A Philosophy course in logic might be a good elective for the pre-law student.
Rather than searching for courses that might "be good for law school," the student is far better advised to search for excellent teachers in any discipline. It won't help you to take a political science course in criminal law if the professor is so bad that you learn little from the course. But the intellectual stimulation obtainable from a fine teacher of French Literature or New Testament Criticism will contribute much to your life-long education and make you a better student. Select teachers, not courses: your undergraduate education is not a prep school for later professional training.
It is difficult to be anything other than a grade-grubber when a person applies to law school. Often, law schools consider only the cumulative GPA, totally disregarding the difficulty of the courses or professors, the work required, whether courses were required or elective, or other factors that should be considered.
The student who fills his/her transcript with A's obtained in crip courses will surely be the loser, however. While a high GPA may be obtained through such methods, it will not be an accurate record of performance. The student will suffer in law school through his failure to develop good study habits, wide and critical reading ability, and a coherent writing style. Furthermore, those law schools that do examine transcripts can easily ferret out those predominantly made up of "crippies.” Take good courses and work hard enough so that you will have an honest record of high achievement.
Law schools almost uniformly frown on too many pass/fail grades. Admissions officers feel that they make achievement impossible to measure, and that students understandably put less effort into such courses. A small number of pass/fail grades probably will not hurt you at most law schools, but purely from an admissions viewpoint, "the fewer, the better.” Since Duke currently permits only one P/F course per semester, few people here will be affected. Pass grades are counted. (And people have been known to flunk pass/fail courses.)
It is even more important to not "burn yourself out" by over working or over studying during your college career. I have witnessed a number of excellent students, with GPA's of over 3.5, get upset with a "B" in a course or search the catalogue for "easy" courses. Believe me, there will be ample opportunity for you to overwork yourself once you are in law school--enjoy yourself and your work during your undergraduate career.
Jerome Katz, '72, once wrote in a prelaw memorandum that when law school work "gets particularly all-consuming, it's nice to know that four years of reading good literature and maybe even indulging in a little Art, Music, Psychology, or whatever else it is one really likes were a well-invested counter-weight.” His observation is indeed accurate.
Several books on law schools have been published by various commercial and nonprofit organizations. All of them will contain some sort of worthwhile information, but the only one I recommend for purchase is: The Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools published annually by The Law School Admission Council. The book can be ordered when you register for the LSAT. Included in a uniform, easy-to-decipher style is information on curriculum, the student body, special programs, admission, financial aid, cost, and housing. The material is supplied by the law schools, but appears to be fairly objective regardless. The book's most valuable feature is a chart for nearly every law school that discloses the number of applications and acceptances for the previous year within a particular LSAT/GPA range. Within certain limits, a student can obtain a realistic appraisal of his numerical chances for success at a given school. Finally, the book contains excellent descriptions of law school education and the legal profession. I recommend a thorough reading of the general introductory sections, and at least a scanning of the individual school descriptions. You may find that a law school you never before considered appeals to you the most.
Read the catalogues or visit the websites of the schools that interest you. Some are extremely informative, while others provide minimal data. You will find that most law schools have the same curriculum, while the larger law schools have more course offerings. The Office of the Pre-law Advisor has many of the current law school catalogues.
Material prepared by the Office of the Pre-law Advisor is pertinent to Duke undergraduates and always up-to-date. Pre-law students should check with the office for copies of this material.