Pre-legal Education

Last updated: June 6, 2013

This article, with some modifications, was originally published in Barron's Guide to Law Schools, 1990 edition, the front portion of which is edited by Professor Gary A. Munneke of Pace University School of Law. Professor Munneke is also the author of How To Succeed in Law School, published by Barron's. Professor Munneke has consulted with Barron's and has granted permission for this reprint. We gratefully acknowledge this cooperation.

Three decades ago, Dean Acheson - former Secretary of State, architect of much of the post - World War II foreign policy of the United States, and a lawyer - wrote an article for a national magazine that was billed in the Table of Contents as "Dean Acheson Tells Why Law Is The Most Sophisticated Profession." • All references and quotations attributed to Dean Acheson are taken from the article "Dean Acheson Tells Why Law Is The Most Sophisticated Profession," Esquire Magazine. LV1, No. 1, July 1961:100-103.

Acheson began his discourse by using Edmund Burke's words as a foil: "Law sharpens a man's mind by narrowing it."  Acheson then took issue with this half-truth of Burke's by writing that law does indeed sharpen the mind, but certainly not by narrowing it. Law, said Acheson, alerts the mind. The study and practice of law "tends strongly to emancipate those who follow it from their natural state of innocence and leads them into worldly knowledge -- and sometimes to worldly wisdom."  "Alerting," as defined by Acheson, refers to the process whereby those who study and practice law become aware of the complexity of human life and institutions and of the inherent ambiguities of modern life.        

The distance from Acheson's comments to what the reader of this article really wants to know is a very short one indeed. For the basic questions facing those considering the legal profession either at the beginning or somewhere in their undergraduate career are "What courses should I take, and what major should I choose to prepare me for law school?" Shorn of impurities such as "what courses do law school admission committees like to see on a transcript?" or "What courses can I get the best grades in," the questions are legitimate ones which deserve a thoughtful response. Four initial considerations set the boundaries of what is to follow. First, there is no pre-packaged definitive list of courses or set pre-law curriculum recommended either by the Association of American Law Schools, individual law schools, or by the Pre-Law Advisors National Council. Second, undergraduate pre-law students need to keep in mind the real purpose of an undergraduate education and, as best stated by a law school admission officer, "students should not mortgage their undergraduate education for the sake of law school." Third, for any one person to attempt to describe a curriculum for all pre-law students is as futile as it  would be for a physician to write one prescription for thousands of patients.

Fourth, preparing for law school, like preparing for any of life's major events such as marriage or the arrival of children, is an inexact science. This pre-law advisor remembers well a letter from a former student during this advisee's first year in law school. Attempting to describe what law school is like, Steve Lawrence, Jr., Duke '72, Chicago Law '75, wrote, " The law student must be ready and willing to meet one of the biggest challenges that he will ever face. Law school is a full-time business. By full-time, I mean a minimum of 10 hours a day, every day of the week. It is quite exhaustive, particularly during the first  year. There is a new vocabulary  to learn, and a new way of thinking. As the faculty is fond of saying, law students also have to learn to read for the first time in their lives. In law, every word is of crucial importance; you don't read just to get the gist of the material. This point came across to me the first day of law school. I had spent four years in college contemplating such issues as truth, goodness, government, religion. In the first case we had to read in Contracts the issue which Judge Henry Friendly, one of the most distinguished judges in the country, had to face was: "What is chicken?"  The case turned on whether the parties to the contract meant `stewing chicken' or `fowl.'  The movement from considering `what is truth' to `what is chicken' symbolizes perfectly for me the movement from college to law school."

With these parameters in mind, how should students who are considering law school and a legal career go about choosing from the large array of courses offered by many undergraduate institutions?  Four basic guidelines can be offered. Students should consider enrolling in courses which

  1. Teach them to think both synthetically and analytically;
  2. Enhance their ability to communicate clearly and precisely in both oral and written form;
  3. Develop an understanding of the human experience and human institutions; and
  4. Assist in values clarification.

Before attempting to put flesh on these skeletons, two caveats should be entered. First, the specific "best" or "most appropriate" courses in each of these categories will vary from institution to institution both because of the curricula offered and the instructors who teach these courses. Most students have been told at one time or another to choose professors and not courses, and there is certainly enough truth in this statement to make it worthy of consideration both in obtaining the best education possible and in preparing for law school. If a professor who teaches Medieval Antarctic History is noted for the rigorous demands of his or her course, then taking this course may be a more profitable learning experience than taking a course in Constitutional History if the latter is not as intellectually demanding.

The second caveat falls under the category of "different strokes for different folks."  Individual students must find for themselves the most appropriate major and courses which will enable them to fulfill both their total educational needs as well as to prepare them for law school. One student might find that a major in physics is precisely the correct path for him or her, but the student who ranks calculus among the great mysteries of the universe and can fathom the working principles of nothing more complex than a wheelbarrow would have to be a masochist to enroll in physics courses.

It is time to move beyond the caveats and back to the basic guidelines. First, students should consider courses which teach them to think both synthetically and analytically. Professor Kingsfield's opening remark to one-L's on the first day of class, "Your heads are filled with mush," is, sadly, relevant. Unfortunately, much undergraduate education in the United States is rigidly compartmentalized, aimed at the accumulation of facts and often culminates in giving students the ability to make a few vague generalizations which may serve well at a cocktail party but are found wanting in the law school classroom. Kingsfield's remark is not aimed at unlearning facts but rather at the student's inability to analyze the facts and place them into a meaningful whole; the mind is filled with an unformed mess of "mush" waiting to be formed. Too often undergraduate professors concentrate on problem-solved rather than problem-solving and stay so tightly secure within their own discipline that students are not able to connect the truth of one course with the truth of another, to say nothing of truth in general.

True thinking is distinguished from mere reverie in that it can both synthesize (combine diverse concepts into a coherent whole) and analyze (separate into component parts), thus reaching a higher stage of truth. The law student and the lawyer need to develop the fine art of true thinking. In the end, a good law student and a successful lawyer need to develop what one philosopher has called "an instinct for the jugular."

It is natural and easy to point to logic and quantitative reasoning courses as those most likely to develop a student's ability to think. Though this is certainly often the case, here again, it may be more helpful to choose professors than courses. If the professor offering a given course has a reputation for encouraging thought and focusing on problem-solving, that course may be extremely valuable for the pre-law student.

Second, students should consider courses which enhance their ability to communicate clearly and precisely in both oral and written form. In our own time, we seem to have perfected the science of communication but neglected the art of communication. We have become victims of what one educator has called "word clutter" in both our written and oral communications. The speeches of one of our former presidents were once described as "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork." quoted from William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, p. 90.

Today, unfortunately, this description includes many of us. All too often communication has become a private matter and is viewed in the same manner as some modern painters view their work. That is, the significance lies not in what is conveyed to others but what it means to the creator. For law students and for lawyers, the essence of communication lies not in what one means to say, but in what is communicated to others. Communication, both in oral and written form, must be clear and precise. The link between thinking and communicating is obvious. Our failure to think and to communicate with clarity and precision is demonstrated by our affinity for such cop-out words as "like" and "you know."

Communication skills can be sharpened in a number of ways. The student, and rightly so, will naturally turn to English, technical writing and public speaking courses. However, there are at least two other approaches to enhancing communication skills. First, there is the study of one or more foreign languages. The immediate value of competency in a foreign language in today's world community is obvious. What is often overlooked and perhaps is of equal importance, is the value of studying a foreign language in order to learn more about the structure of one's own native tongue. Since sentence diagramming and vocabulary study have gone the way of the prop-jet, students often cannot identify the parts of speech and often fail to distinguish the shades of difference between such words as "famous" and "notorious," the real difference between "perimeters" and "parameters," and when to use correctly "between" and "among."

The study of a foreign language can lead to an understanding of the nuances and finer points of one's own native tongue - a necessity for a lawyer. In law, as pointed out earlier, every word is important. Choosing the precise word and placing it in the exactly correct place in a sentence can sometimes make a difference between success and failure. To overemphasize a point well worth overemphasizing, words form a large part of a lawyer's toolbox and choosing the precise word is analogous to a surgeon's choosing the correct instrument at the right time during surgery.

Not only should students consider English, technical writing, public speaking and foreign language courses as means of enhancing their communications skills, they should also explore other opportunities for this involvement, especially seminars. Seminars in almost any discipline offer the chance to research, write a significant paper and make an oral presentation to the entire class. If the professor is demanding and provides good feedback, then the seminar experience can be well worthwhile and can accomplish as much or more than "communication" courses.

Lawyers and lawyers in-the-making are also keenly aware of the fact that communication is not only for the purpose of clarification and explanation but also for the purpose of persuading. At this point, words become "power tools."  Dean Acheson quoted Justice Holmes as saying, "you cannot argue a man into liking a glass of beer."  Logic, clarity and precision have their limits!  Clarence Darrow in the same vein allegedly said that you do not win a jury's support by laying out the law in a logical manner but rather you make a jury want to decide in your client's favor and then give them a point of logic or law to hang their hats on. Persuasive communication in both written and oral forms is truly an art which can be learned through the study of literature, history, poetry, the arts and a study of the written and spoken words of masters in any discipline. If only Winston Churchill had conducted seminars in public speaking and persuasive writing!

The third guideline in planning an undergraduate curriculum appropriate for law school preparation recommends that students should consider courses that develop an understanding of the human experience and human institutions. Lawyers deal with ideas and the black letter law to be sure, but these are dealt with in the context of people and their institutions. At this point in this article readers who want more than vague generalizations will find some very concrete suggestions. Though the present writer prefers a definition of the human species that places the species "below the angels, above other species," there is some insight contained in the definition of human beings as "money-making animals."  Since the law deals with people and their institutions, and people and their institutions deal with money, it is necessary that lawyers have a thorough grasp of the basic principles of accounting and economics. This does not mean that pre-law students should major in accounting or economics or, for that matter, even take a large number of courses in these areas. But, because so much of law involves financial transactions, the ability to understand a balance sheet is an absolute necessity. Likewise, because law and economic institutions and problems are so inextricably intertwined, a basic understanding of macro and microeconomics is equally necessary. Both accounting and economics are also like words "tools of the trade," and students who lack these tools or possess them only as blunt instruments will be at a great disadvantage both as law students and as lawyers.

Yet, the human experience expands far beyond the economic experience into all realms of human endeavor. Understanding the totality of human life leads naturally to thoughts of courses in the humanities and the social sciences, history, literature, religion, psychology, sociology and, at last, patient reader, political science, to name a few. Because the words "pre-law" and "political science" in popular lore are often mistaken as synonyms, it is worthwhile to dwell on this for a moment. Many students headed toward law school automatically assume that political science is the major they must pursue. Though political science may be a good major for those planning to attend law school, so are chemistry, English, history, physics, zoology and numerous other majors if they assist students in reaching their educational goals. Certainly, a lawyer must have a basic knowledge of governmental structures and systems, but, in addition, a lawyer must have knowledge of many other aspects of the human experience as well. For example knowledge of history gives the context out of which laws and institutions have grown and continue to exist. A knowledge of psychology gives insight into the nature of the human animal who created that history with its laws and institutions; sociology describes the collective experience of communities past and present. This is a two-pronged point here. First, students need as broad as possible knowledge of the human experience, and, second, any major within the humanities and social sciences can serve as the catalyst for bringing together the various aspects of the human experience.

Finally, and increasingly important in preparing to study and to practice law (as well as living life itself), a student should consider courses which assist in values clarification. Once upon a time, before the age of technology and urbanization, common values came as "givens" and were accepted as received knowledge. But as society has become more complex and various diverse elements have combined to infuse strains of many value systems into our society, there has occurred not only a loss of common values but also a confusion of values. If, in the past, lawyers were criticized because they appeared to run rough shod over the prevailing value system, in the future they may be subject to criticism because they failed to establish any value system. In simpler words, in the past lawyers were presented with a choice between right and wrong; in the future they may not be able to distinguish clearly right from wrong. For example, in a kinder, gentler and simpler world, for many people the value pronouncements of the Parable of the Good Samaritan are obvious. In this Parable a Good Samaritan finds a fellow human on the side of the road who has been robbed and beaten. The Samaritan takes him to an inn to recover, paying his expenses in advance. This is simple and beautiful. However, in our complex world the Good Samaritan has to give primary consideration to himself for he is  "at risk" in a number of areas. The poor fellow is bleeding. What is the risk of AIDS?  What is the Samaritan's liability if he injures the man on the way to the inn?  Suppose the injured man is really the robber and the good guy got away?  What is the Good Samaritan's exposure legally?  Though no undergraduate courses can give final answers, they can raise the essential questions and suggest possible approaches to finding answers. Ethics, studied in either a philosophic/religious framework or in Public Policy Studies, may prove to be helpful to students in their search for value systems.

At this point the reader may be thinking, I began this chapter on undergraduate preparation for law school looking for a road map and all I got was a compass. This, in fact, is both the intent of this chapter and the only possible honest response. For reaching one's educational goals, pre-law or not, is analogous to an individual's spiritual journey. Each path to the goal is a separate one; each journey is a personal one.

In case the points of the compass have become blurred, it might be helpful to summarize what has been argued in this chapter.

  1. There is no such thing as a rigid undergraduate pre-law curriculum. Though some courses in any undergraduate institution's curriculum may be helpful in preparing for law school, the best advice is to seek a broad liberal arts education with specialization in one or more areas.
  2. In choosing a major, students should select that one which contains the most inherent interest for them. By choosing on this basis, not only will students perform at a higher level but also they will find a major that can best serve as the organizing catalyst for all knowledge.
  3. Thinking and communicative skills can be enhanced not only by taking courses which overtly are directed to that end, but also through rigorous seminars or courses which require papers and oral presentations.
  4. Sometimes it is better to select professors than courses.
  5. A basic knowledge of accounting procedures and economic principles is a necessity.

Two final comments for consideration, one concerning the journey; the other concerning the goal: First, in talking about preparation for law school, the discussion has focused on courses and professors, but this is not to ignore the learning which takes place outside of the classroom. There is a great deal to be learned from simply reading beyond and outside of that which is assigned. Dean Acheson, who seemed to enjoy citing others as much as the present writer, quoted Justice Frankfurter as saying,"...The best way to prepare for the law is to come to the study of the law as a well-read person."  It is a common and often legitimate complaint of students and non-students alike that they simply don't have time to read. All of us have resolved at one time or another to "set aside" some time for reading each day only to have that resolution go the way of our plans to diet. However, much reading can be done if we learn to use our scraps of time for this purpose. Some people keep a book in their cars and read while waiting for a friend or child or spouse. Others carry a book with them to the grocery store and read it instead of the national gossip rag while waiting at the check-out counter. The back of the commode makes a perfect bookshelf!  In short, reading, and especially reading the work of skilled writers, can convey knowledge, enhance the development of thought processes and help us become better communicators.

Finally, preparing to be a lawyer is also preparing to be an interesting, capable and thoughtful individual. When Dean Acheson called law "the most sophisticated profession," he was not really talking so much about the profession as the men and women who make up the profession. A friend and mentor of Acheson's mused one day on the question why the men and women he most enjoyed talking to were almost always lawyers. As Acheson pointed out, "it was not because he wanted to talk shop. God forbid."  "The greatest bore in the world," Acheson's friend said, "is a lawyer who tells you about his cases when you want to tell him about yours."  "No", said Acheson, "legal shop talk is utterably dull...But it is still true that a high percentage of those whose conversation one finds stimulating and enjoyable, as my partner pointed out, are lawyers. The reason, so he thought -- and I agree - is that the law is not only an intellectual pursuit, one which trains the mind to be quick and perceptive and sinks deep roots in the modes and history of human thought and experience, but it is a sophisticating pursuit."

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