Pre-Law and the Humanities Professional Paths
Since students will learn the content of law in law school, the best preparation in pre-law is an education that hones skills in analytical and logical thinking and in written and oral communication.
English, history, humanities, and philosophy degree programs are designed to provide training and practice in the following skills needed in the field of law:
- Logical thinking and analysis of arguments
- Close reading and analysis of texts
- Effective writing and speaking
These skills will prepare students for the LSAT, successful performance in legal studies, and a fulfilling career. For more information on pre-law preparation and the humanities, please read our pre-law handbook below.
Pre-Law Humanities Handbook
In choosing a course of study while preparing for law school, students should start by considering which subjects they enjoy most. Aptitude and academic success usually go hand in hand with interest: students tend to perform better in the areas they like the most.
If they major in a discipline that they find unappealing, they may hurt, rather than help, their chances of getting into law school, and their experience in law school may end up being far less rewarding than it could have otherwise been.
Nonetheless, some courses of study are better preparation for law school than others. And the humanities provide particularly good preparation. Collectively, they do a great deal to sharpen the particular set of skills that are essential for studying and later practicing law.
Edward Cohen, former professor at University of Texas at Austin (one of the nation's leading law schools), always urged pre-law students to "get the broadest liberal arts education you can; spend far and away the most time on the humanities. That's the most helpful thing you can do in getting ready for law school." One of Cohen's students explained:
"When you get to law school, you'll study plenty of business law, for example-all you'll need and more. But you won't study history, philosophy, and so on. Your course of study is going to be very rigorous and limiting. You'll no longer have the opportunity to get a broad education, and you'll need to have made use of the opportunity in undergraduate school, because it's a broad education that makes you a literate, well-rounded person. If all you've studied in college is [for example] math and business law then . . . you'll be limited in how effectively you can practice law. For example, you may not be able to put together a sentence decently. You certainly won't be able to speak eloquently or with any persuasive force."
Similarly, when asked by one of the authors of this handbook, one trial attorney said:
"None of the most accomplished trial lawyers I ever met was a CPA by training or majored in business. All of them were bright, intellectually curious people. Their curiosity is what led them to take a broad range of courses. Sometimes they'd switched majors a number of times. They could speak to you convincingly. They had a broad range of ideas to pull from. . . . Many times [in practicing trial law] I fell back on what I'd learned in history. From the very broad range of courses I took in the humanities, I got [among other things] names I could drop and phrases I could turn, and I understood people much better. I studied Latin and Greek; I took English classes until there were just about none left to take; I spent a lot of time in the history department. . . ."
As this suggests, there are good reasons to gravitate toward the humanities in preparing for law school. For one, both law students and attorneys must have a knack for analyzing issues well, reading critically, offering accurate interpretations, writing and speaking clearly, making sensible inferences, and crafting forceful arguments. Meanwhile, law students and attorneys need to understand people so as to be adept at talking with clients, gaining their trust, interviewing them to glean details that are relevant to a legal case, dealing with the opposing side in the case, and so on.
Moreover, in order to handle the rigors of law school and, ultimately, of practicing law, a person needs to be accustomed to doing academic work that is vigorous and demanding. One of the most famous trial lawyers of all time, Louis Nizer, used to stress heavily that preparation is crucial in the practice of law. And in a similar vein, another attorney said:
"In my view, good study skills-those relevant to law study and practice-are the most important things to be taken from undergraduate study. . . . Students will need to work tirelessly if they really want to excel in law school. [They'll need to d]ig into the material deeply and spend more time than necessary, as opposed to less. People may be able to skate by in undergraduate school, but this just won't work in law school."
He mentioned two assets that are the most crucial for a student to have when entering law school. One of them is a tolerance for very heavy loads of reading, and the other is the patience to go over the same material as much as is required in order to clear up all misunderstandings and ambiguities. He also said that this tolerance and patience have to be cultivated and must become habitual in the undergraduate years if a student is to succeed in law school: "The importance of good habits can't be overstressed. I witnessed many bright people do poorly in law school and fail the bar exam because they simply didn't have the habits they needed."
Not surprisingly, he added that the necessary habits are best developed through study in the humanities. These habits are essential not only for law students, but also for attorneys, who need to be attentive to details, disciplined, and utterly thorough.
In short, there are sizable advantages that the humanities share with one another when they serve as pre-law training. There also are other advantages specific to each discipline in the humanities. What follows is a catalogue of some of them.
It is easy to see why admissions committees at law schools tend to favor philosophy majors. Perhaps more than anything else, law students and attorneys need to be skilled at evaluating the strength of arguments and counterarguments. And philosophy centers on a process in which arguments are weighed against counterarguments about various issues so as to reach truth or knowledge by figuring out which views we have the best reasons to adopt. Philosophy students learn to carry out this process with great rigor and sophistication.
Emphasizing all of this, one attorney said: "If you want to do well in law school, major in philosophy. Double major, if you want. But whatever you do, take a lot of philosophy classes." Similarly, when asked what course of study she recommends first and foremost as pre-law training, another attorney replied: "That's easy-philosophy. No question." Still another lawyer put it this way:
If students aren't used to analyzing argument after argument, they won't succeed in law school. . . . [In the study and practice of law, i]t's not enough just to be able to craft a good argument of your own. You also have to be so familiar with argumentation that you can immediately spot the flaws in other people's arguments. That's why philosophy courses are hands-down the best pre-law training. There are a lot of disciplines [in which] you'll get some good practice at assessing arguments. But you'll get the most practice, and the best practice, in philosophy.
The area of philosophy known as philosophy of law is of obvious importance for pre-law students. But so are other fields in philosophy, such as logic, which is the general science of inference. From the study of logic, students gain basic tools with which to distinguish good reasoning from poor reasoning. In order to have a complete set of tools and grow adept enough at using them, students will need to continue their study of philosophy during the undergraduate years. But the tools gained from a logic course are indispensable, and the study of logic is essential for any pre-law student.
Ethics and political philosophy, two other fields in philosophy, grapple with issues involving justice, fairness, duty and obligation, and the like. In turn, ethics and political philosophy reflect the very essence of law: foundational notions of right versus wrong, the proper interests of both individual and society, what people owe one another, the balance of rights they have, the basis for claiming a right, how disputes are to be settled with equity, when a law may defensibly be violated, and so on. Ethics and political philosophy are tightly linked with legal study.
Finally, since law is founded upon what humankind has concluded is known and knowable, pre-law students also do well to study the area of philosophy called epistemology, which concerns such issues as what knowledge is. But logic, ethics and political philosophy, and epistemology are just examples of fields in philosophy that are relevant. Pre-law students have a lot to gain from all of the philosophy courses offered at Seaver College. All of the parties in a legal conflict have to provide compelling arguments in their defense. In a wide range of instances, law students and attorneys must ask whether the arguments that are offered are satisfactory. No other undergraduate students are better prepared to size up an argument than philosophy majors.
History, too, is an excellent major or area of emphasis for a pre-law student. As the study of past events and people, and the significance they still have, history looks at where we have been and where we are going. Rather than simply reporting what came before us, history helps us learn from the past so that we can make better judgments.
For example, we consider how people have responded to crises, analyze the decisions they have made, and weigh the merits of the strategies they have used; in the process of uncovering certain patterns in the past, we can learn lessons that are useful here and now. History also deepens our appreciation for various points of view, reveals the value of disagreement, and helps us see more clearly the interrelationships among other fields of study.
For that matter, law itself is history in large part: a lengthy succession of case law sets precedents that guide legal decision-making. Additionally, the development of our justice system is inextricably intertwined with both American and world history, in part since English common law from centuries ago gave life to most American law.
The role of law in American culture cannot be fully appreciated without due regard for the history that produced our conceptions of law and that produced the laws under which we live and function. To understand what our legal system is and why it is the way it is, we have to know the history of American jurisprudence, a history which is at the heart of the American experience.
One feature of American culture that sets it apart from other cultures in history is that the United States has a government of laws and not people, meaning that written statutory law or court-developed case law are what decide disputes and govern virtually every facet of American life: laws guide us, rather than the arbitrary whim of a despotic ruler who would violate fundamental rights and liberties.
The decision of the original 13 colonies to declare independence from England was based largely upon onerous British laws to which the colonists were subjected, and the arguments to justify wrenching free from England were based upon legal concepts that were said to transcend any one nation or individual.
Many of the leading figures in the conflict were lawyers, and lawyers have served this country in every key capacity from president to local justice of the peace. The federal Supreme Court is an equal partner in the tripartite form of American government, and its decisions have dramatically shaped major national and individual issues since the early years of United States history.
Understanding this history, and the nature and role of law, is an invaluable asset when one studies the law itself. History majors thus are particularly well equipped when they enter law school. Incoming law students who have a grounding in history can better understand what they encounter in law school, which adds to their confidence and self-assurance.
In addition, the analytical skills they have acquired through the study of history serve them well when they tackle case law, when they need to distill key legal principles from it, and when they work to appreciate why the law is as it is. They will need to carry out these tasks not only in law school, but also in practicing law.
Moreover, the intellectual discipline gained from the study of history is excellent preparation for a career in law. The historical enterprise is based on the search for truth via meticulous research, the careful weighing of evidence and opinions, and the construction of persuasive arguments and narratives. Students in history are confronted with often overwhelming loads of information that they must sort through critically, discriminating between true and false representations of past events.
In studying history, students must discern order within the information they gather, and then describe this order, using language that is clear, organized, and persuasive. In carrying out this task, they develop an array of finely-honed skills that are of tremendous value in the legal profession-a profession based on evidence, order, precedent, and clarity of expression.
The study of English provides essential preparation for law school and the legal profession. Our language is the medium in which we formulate effective questions, think through issues, discern alternatives, and reach insights. Students of English acquire the habit of using that language with precision, employing the rich resources of grammar and style to achieve logical clarity, and translating their skills in focus, order, and coherence into effective argument. Testifying to the importance of the study of English as pre-law training, one attorney emphasized that law students must be able "to write succinctly, zero in on the issues, and form an intelligent well thought-out argument." After a long and distinguished career of trying cases, another lawyer said:
"I'd pick English first and foremost as preparation [for law school], because you really need a good mastery of the English language [to be a capable attorney]. Judges play with words. Law is filled with terms of art. Lawyers have to use language properly. I saw lawyers run the gamut from incredibly articulate to semi-literate, and there's no question that your facility with the English language has a lot to do with whether you're successful in practicing law."
English Studies at Pepperdine includes the study of rhetoric in historical and contemporary
contexts and offers courses developing a broad range of persuasive writing skills.
Rhetorical skill is invaluable for any attorney, and not only for trial lawyers. While
a trial lawyer must persuade the judge and jury in a court of law, all attorneys need
to communicate compellingly when they are negotiating with other attorneys and consulting
Since the study and practice of law involve extensive reading and analysis, a mastery of English proves critical in every field of law-from trial law to tax law, from administrative to corporate to constitutional law. Statutes, contracts, and legal articles require skill in close reading, and so do the rulings and opinions that the courts hand down. One attorney has even said that "dissecting a poem is very similar to briefing a case." But the more literate students are, the better they will fare in every field of law.
Attorneys must often be skilled interpreters. This requirement is one that students of English are especially capable of fulfilling: they become adept in interpretation of the written and spoken word because they study the functions of words and the relations among the parts of complex sentences. In interpreting texts they learn to pay attention to detail, discover patterns of evidence, formulate judgments that connect details to general concepts, and construct proofs supported with textual analysis and adhering to common reasonableness. As many teachers of legal writing recognize, these are the essential components of legal arguments.
Through the study of literary and rhetorical theories, students of English learn skills integral to legal thinking: understanding concepts, analyzing issues and discovering common ground, maintaining argumentative consistency within a system of assumptions (like law), and critically comparing and evaluating interpretations arising from different systems. The study of theory, moreover, makes English truly inter-disciplinary. Learning to use concepts from psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, linguistics, and rhetoric, students become familiar with the same culture-forming sources that have influenced legal thinking. In working with theory, students of English gain broad and sophisticated cultural knowledge and establish their own values on a coherent basis.
Finally, through the study of poetry, drama, prose fiction, and non-fiction, students of English amass a wealth of vicarious experience. Literature brings readers into contact with people in all their diversity of life choices and situational dilemmas. By closely reading literature, students become more practiced at drawing inferences, discerning and connecting events, and entering into diverse points-of-view. Literature absorbs every facet of human life, so it is no accident that legal issues, which often permeate everyday thinking, have also found their way into literature and helped to shape its themes and stories: deception and crime, judgment and sympathy, guilt and punishment, belief and certainty, responsibility and authority and justice are the perennial concerns of great literature. Observing these themes embodied in stories, the candidate for the legal profession becomes a more full sensitized and capable interpreter of the human scene.
Within the humanities, there are still other areas of study that provide excellent pre-law training. Pepperdine offers two alternative ways of fulfilling many of the general studies requirements for graduation.
In the Great Books Colloquium, a four-course sequence, students read and discuss masterworks of political thought, ethics, literature, and religious thought, including authors who have shaped Western debates on law and justice (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Locke, Kant) as well as major contributors to our cultural tradition (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Austen, Dostoevsky). This series of limited-enrollment seminars engages students in shared inquiry and close reading of texts, and in analytical, exploratory, and argumentative writing.
In the Social Action and Justice Colloquium, also a four-course sequence, students read and discuss texts focusing on issues such as human rights, gender and racial equality, the environment, the influence of socio-economic background, and religious activism. At the same time it engages students in service-learning activities related to the issues they are studying. This course of study is especially relevant to potential law students interested in issues of societal injustice.
Students interested in law school should also consider the broad opportunities to focus on a minor that would complement and augment the skills and subject matter of their major area of study. The Humanities Division offers minors in philosophy, history, and English with the benefits described in the sections above. Those interested in increasing their writing skills may also follow a minor in writing, while those desiring a broad general education would be well advised to follow a Liberal Arts major.
It is well to bear in mind that attorneys and law students must be more than just purveyors of the law: they are citizens whose preparation, self-images, and usefulness to others are colored greatly by the depth and breadth of their undergraduate education. Francis Bacon was right to say that "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." And as one attorney has recently put it, "life is more than just one line of study or a particular profession, and an excellent grounding in the humanities makes one both a better law student and a richer person."
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