Pre-Law Emphasis Professional Paths
Many students who major in one of the social sciences—economics, political science, psychology, or sociology—use their social science degree as a springboard for gaining admission to law school and pursuing a legal career. Since gaining admission to law school does not require undergraduates to pursue a rigid, highly structured course of study, many students are left with questions about how best to prepare for legal studies.
The handbook below is designed to answer those questions. It seeks to give guidance in choosing your major and planning your undergraduate education in such a way as to maximize your preparation for achieving success in law school and, later, in the legal profession.
Pre-Law Handbook for Majors in the Social Sciences
There is no single academic major that is best for all students planning for a legal career. Law schools accept applicants with degrees in almost every major. Business, philosophy, economics, history, accounting, and English all provide a solid background for law school. The social science disciplines in particular prepare students for gaining admission to law school, excelling in legal studies, and, eventually, for the practice of law. All of the social sciences place a strong emphasis on critical reading skills, analyzing and evaluating what one has read, thinking clearly and logically, and expressing one's self clearly, both orally and in writing. These are all skills crucial to gaining admission to law school, doing well in legal studies, and practicing in the legal profession.
But this leaves the question of which discipline—economics, political science, psychology, science, history, accounting, or sociology—is the best one for you. There is no one right answer to this question. What may be right for one person may not be right for another. There is—most importantly—the question of your own interests, likes, and abilities.
A good general rule to follow is to major in the field in which you are the most interested and in which you enjoy studying the most. All of us have different interests and aptitudes. The student who does well in and loves one subject area may dislike and not excel in another area. You will learn more, mature, and develop more quickly and fully if you are working in an area in which you have aptitudes and strong interests.
You will then be better equipped to gain admission to the law school of your choice and to do well in legal studies. Students who have already identified a field of law in which they have special interests can use those interests to help guide their choice of a major. Also, each of the social sciences has certain special characteristics that are relevant to legal studies.
Below are the four social science disciplines, followed by a discussion of the fields of law especially relevant to each of them and their special characteristics relevant to preparation for legal studies:
Those who are especially interested in pursuing corporate, real estate, and tax law, as well as other such fields dealing with business and economics, may consider the economics major. Economics has a further benefit in that many of the analyses in which economists engage in have a strong mathematical and theoretical aspect to them. These quantitative skills tend to sharpen reasoning and analytical skills, which are helpful in doing well on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and in legal studies.
- Political Science
Political science has an immediate and direct relevance to the legal field because laws and regulations are written by government officials, legislators, and the courts that enforce laws are part of the judicial branch of government. There are political science courses that deal directly with constitutional law and the judicial process. Also, many students pursue legal studies in preparation for careers in government service of one type or another: as elected officials, aides to elected officials, judges or other judicial officials, or as one of the myriad administrative officials on the state, local, or national levels. Students with career interests along these lines may find political science an especially relevant major. It is also the most popular major for students planning to attend law school.
Those who are especially interested in criminal or family law and dispute resolution might want to consider a psychology major. Psychology seeks to develop an understanding of human behavior and motivations, as well as insights into troubled or dysfunctional human relationships. In addition, psychology helps individuals to bridge cultural, economic, and social differences. A heightened sensitivity to these issues can assist an attorney in dealing with clients, as well as other attorneys, experts, and adversaries from all walks of life.
Sociology can be an especially helpful major to those interested in a wide variety of legal fields that deal with social institutions. As with psychology, it can be especially helpful for those interested in some aspect of criminal or family law or dispute resolution. It can also be helpful for those interested in civil rights law, welfare law, or estate planning and probate. As is true with psychology, sociology helps individuals to bridge cultural, economic, and social differences, which can assist an attorney in dealing with clients, other attorneys, experts, and adversaries.
The first question one faces in regard to applying to law school is where one should apply. There are three factors to take into consideration: the reputation or prestige of the various law schools, their location, and where you can realistically hope to gain admission. There is a clear "pecking order" among law schools. Some law schools are nationally known and very prestigious while others are seen as mediocre at best. Various published guides to law schools give a good sense of the relative rank of the various schools. Only you can determine the importance of the level of prestige of the law school you attend. If you desire a career with a national or international law firm you should make every effort to gain admission to a highly prestigious school of law, although the top graduates of other law schools are also likely to have a chance with such firms. If you desire a legal career in a smaller law firm or in a small town, the prestige level of the law school you attend becomes less important. Law schools are either accredited by the American Bar Association or by state accreditation agencies. ABA accreditation is one important factor to consider since many law firms will only hire students of accredited schools. Remember that competition for legal jobs after graduation from law school is intense and-all things being equal-the more prestigious the law school you attend, the more career options you will have.
The state where your law school is located is not very important. This is especially true of the most prestigious law school since they attract students from around the country and have a curriculum that is national in orientation. This also tends to be true of less prestigious law schools that are accredited by the American Bar Association. Law schools that are state-accredited often are more oriented towards the law of the state in which they are located. Thus if you attend a state-accredited law school and then seek to practice law in another state, you could experience some difficulties. Again, published national guides of law schools, as well as information put out in the admissions packets of individual schools, are good sources of information on the character and orientation of the various schools. Visiting the law schools you are thinking of applying to can also be very helpful.
Published law school guides can help judge the reputation and rank of different law schools. Such guides typically give the average LSAT scores and GPAs of previous years' classes. You should plan to apply to more than one law school. If time and money allow, it is advisable to apply to six to eight schools. At a minimum, you should plan to apply to three. You should apply to several at or about the level at which you realistically think to be admitted, one or two above where you think you probably will be admitted, and one or two below where you think you will be admitted. This way in case you have underestimated the level of the school you are likely to get into, you may be successful and be admitted to a better school at a higher level than you had hoped; or if you have overestimated the level you are likely to get into, you will at least have one or two alternative schools from which to choose.
Many law schools have also added dual-degree programs in areas such as law and business (JD/MBA), law and theology (JD/MDiv), and law and public policy (JD/MPP). These joint-degree programs provide unique educational experiences and may be a way to pursue particular areas of specialization and distinguish oneself from one's classmates. Every school has unique and specific entrance requirements for dual degree programs so it is important to research these before applying.
Law school admission offices typically take six factors into account in making their admission decisions:
- LSAT score (Law School Admission Test)
- Academic record (grade point average and class standing)
- Personal statement/essay
- Work experience
- Letters of recommendation
- Quality of the application
The LSAT is by far the most important of the six factors. It is a standardized test periodically given nationwide. The long-term trend of most law schools has been to give added weight to the LSAT since it provides a uniform yardstick to compare all applicants. GPAs can be inflated, letters of recommendation can exaggerate, and application forms can even be ghostwritten by others, but LSAT scores are objective and reliable and provide some indication as to whether a student will succeed in law school.
Law School Admission Council (LSAC) studies show that the LSAT is the single best numerical predictor of first-year performance in law school, that the LSAT is superior to undergraduate grades as a predictor of law school success, and that the two measures when combined, are superior to either one standing alone. The LSAT largely seeks to measure one's reading and analytical skills.
The abilities to read quickly and with good comprehension and to reason logically are best learned by sharpening them through careful work in all of your courses. Some have suggested that taking a couple of extra math or statistics courses can help sharpen one's reasoning skills. Philosophy 290 (Logic) is an excellent course that helps to improve one's analytic skills and thereby improves one's performance on the LSAT.
One step that is clearly very helpful is to purchase a copy of an LSAT preparation guide, many of which include copies of previously administered LSAT exams. By taking several practice tests within the tests' time limits, one can prepare for the actual test experience. Taking an LSAT preparation course, such as those offered by KAPLAN or Princeton Review, is a great option for some undergraduate students, but the high cost of these programs can deter many. Opinions differ as to whether, or to what extent, these courses are able to assist a student in raising their LSAT score.
Arguably, the most valuable portion of these courses is the exposure that they provide students with actual LSAT questions and old LSAT practice tests, which may be purchased separately from any major bookstore or the Pepperdine Bookstore. If you have the money and time, taking one of these preparation courses is probably wise.
Many students want to know when to take the LSAT. Most students take it in the fall of their senior year. Some take it during the summer between their junior and senior years, figuring they will be more rested and better able to concentrate at that time than in the midst of an academic semester. Others put the test off until the beginning of the second semester of their senior year, seeking to get as many of their studies under their belt as possible before taking the test.
Most students would be well advised to take it earlier than that since most law schools begin to make admission decisions in January, and taking the exam early affords students the opportunity to retake the exam if they are unsatisfied with their score. Most students also take the exam more than once, but it is not advisable to take it more than two or three times. Scores do not usually vary significantly between exams. There is, of course, no one right answer for everyone and much depends on individual inclinations and circumstances.
GPAs are the second most important factor after the LSAT score. While getting an undergraduate degree, it is absolutely essential that students study as hard as they can and devote themselves to developing strong reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. There is no substitute for taking and mastering different subjects. Your transcript will be included in your application, and the rigor of the courses you selected may be weighed by the law schools in their evaluation of your GPA.
One word of advice in regard to letters of recommendation is to try to take two or three courses from a few professors in order to make certain that several professors get to know you well. A strong letter of recommendation is one that is not couched in general terms, but refers specifically to you and can mention attributes specific to you.
For professors to write such letters they need to know you personally. This can best be achieved by taking two or three courses with at least two professors, and perhaps doing an independent study with one of them. One of the advantages of a Pepperdine education is that professors can get to know you personally. You can maximize this advantage by developing a close working relationship with your professors.
Be sure to give the professors you ask to write letters of recommendation plenty of time to do so. Coming in with a request for a letter of recommendation a few days before the deadline, almost assures the letter will be a pro forma, not a personal letter. You should also give a copy of supporting materials to the professors writing letters of recommendation, such as your résumé and a statement of your goals in pursuing legal studies.
Finally, be sure to fill out your law school applications for admission carefully and fully. This is no time to save time or cut corners. If a personal statement or another essay is required, spend time with this. It should be brief (well within the space limits given), well organized, and logical in its flow of ideas. Quadruple check for spelling and grammatical errors! All forms should be typed and professional in appearance. Ask a friend or advisor to look over your application before you submit it.
There is no prescribed course of study or sequence of courses that constitutes the one correct sequence or course of study. It may, however, be helpful to set down examples of pre-law courses for each of the social science disciplines. For example, PHIL 290 is a logic course that may provide you with skills that will improve your LSAT score; therefore, it is recommended that you take this course before you take the LSAT.
Following are examples of courses that can provide guidance for students interested in preparing for legal studies, and may serve as a starting point in planning your pre-law studies. Your academic adviser and other professors can help you design the course of study best suited to your interests, abilities, and career goals.
Within each of the social science majors, there are elective classes that may be helpful for students interested in going to law school. Again, there is no prescribed course of study that must be fulfilled by students applying to law school. However, it may be helpful to take some of the following courses to get a taste for different types of law.
The following is a list of elective classes, by social science major, which may provide a helpful background for different legal fields.
- ECON 200 - Economic Principles (for corporate law and bankruptcy)
- ECON 412 - Money and Banking (for corporate law and bankruptcy)
- ECON 426 - Economic Analysis of Legal Institutions (for corporate law and bankruptcy)
- POSC 446 - International Organizations and Law (for international law)
- POSC 426 - Jurisprudence and Judicial Process (for civil procedure)
- POSC 433 - Constitutional Law (for constitutional law)
- PSYC 230 - Interpersonal Behavior (for general negotiation and counseling skills)
- PSYC 432 - Family Therapy (for family law)
- SOC 421 - Deviant Behavior and Social Control (for criminal law)
- SOC 424 - Social Psychology (for general background)
- SOC 426 - Sociology of Religion (for constitutional law)
- SOC 427 - Sociology of Family (for family law)
- SOC 436 - Crime and Delinquency (for criminal law)
Other relevant classes
- AC 224 - Financial Accounting (for tax law)
- AC 422 - Income Tax Accounting (for income tax law)
- BA 457 - The Legal Environment of International Business (for international corporate law)
- COM 570 - Media Law (for constitutional law)
- PHIL 290 - Logic (for LSAT preparation)
For pre-law advising, email Professor Brian Link. You should also see your own academic advisor for help in planning your major program of study and obtaining advice on your academic progress and plans for the future.
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Robert E. Williams
Divisional Dean & Professor of Political Science