Is Law School Right for Me?

One reason to study the law is to understand better how our nation’s legal system undergirds a society whose foundation is “a government of laws, not men.” A more concrete reason is to become an attorney. Despite all the “lawyer jokes,” which have a long history in the Anglo-American world, lawyers are members of a respected profession. They are often very well compensated. Commonly stereotyped as being “conservative,” the law can be a vigorous force for economic, social, political, intellectual, and technological change. If attorneys are similarly labeled as being “conservative,” in U.S. history some have been on the cutting edge of reform movements. Thus such diverse “reformers” as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Brandeis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Earl Warren, Robert Kennedy, and Thurgood Marshall were all products of legal educations. If advocacy — opposing or favoring change — appeals to you, a law school education is one of the best ways to develop advocacy skills.

Alma’s intimate class size, emphasis on writing, essay tests and required class participation all prepared me for the rigors of law school by developing my skills in writing, analysis and logical argument. Each is key to success in law school and in the practice of law. Law is the great generalist degree, and Alma’s liberal arts education provides an ideal foundation for both students and lawyers. -Brian Haara ’93; Kentucky ’96

Law school graduates most typically enter private practice or serve as in-house counsel for corporations. But the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree is one of the most versatile of all graduate/professional school degrees because it can open so many career doors. Many attorneys work as advisors, consultants, and advocates for government agencies and non-profit organizations. A law school education can lead to positions in business management and consulting, politics, education, and the military. Many lawyers develop expertise in particular legal specialties. The most widely recognized legal specialties are corporate and securities law, criminal law, environmental and natural resources law, family and juvenile law, health law, intellectual property law, international law, tax law, and civil rights law. However, most of these specialized areas have sub-specialties. Thus the sub-specialty of mergers and acquisitions exists within the broad specialty of corporate and securities law. Bankruptcy law is also a sub-specialty of corporate and securities law, and patent law is a sub-specialty of intellectual property law.

How do I become an attorney?

The most common way is to complete an undergraduate degree in approximately four years and then earn a J.D. in approximately three years from an American Bar Association (ABA)-endorsed law school. Lawyers who intend to practice must then pass the state bar exam(s) in the state(s) where they intend to practice. Attending law school can be very expensive. Some attorneys accumulate as much as $100,000 debt to finance their three years in law school. $30,000-$60,000 in law school debt is more typical for recent Alma graduates who completed law school. Think of your law school expenses as investments in your future, but don’t enroll in law school unless you know it’s right for you.

How do I enhance my chances for success in getting admitted to law school and doing well there?

There is no prescribed major or course of undergraduate study for admission to law school. Law schools are more interested in the overall rigor, challenge, and quality of an applicant?s undergraduate education than in a particular major or collection of course. Law schools desire applicants who have integrity and character. The ABA recommends that undergraduates seeking admission to law school and the legal profession pursue curriculums that enhance analytical and problem-solving skills, critical reading abilities, writing skills, oral communication and listening abilities, research skills, and task organization and management skills. Because lawyers should strive to serve others honestly and achieve justice, the ABA also recommends that law school applicants have some public/community service experience in helping other people.

Alma College, its excellent academic programs and gifted faculty, as well as participation in MIAA football as a Fighting Scot, prepared me well for law school and my legal career … . Professors at Alma College called on students during class similar to the Socratic method practiced by most law schools. -Matthew L. Vicari ’87; Detroit-Mercy ’90 

Although law schools do not require applicants to have majored in specific subjects, law school representatives also say they prefer applicants who are liberally and broadly educated and who have demonstrated success in one or two academic areas (that is, an academic major or a major and minor or a double major). Regardless of an undergraduate’s academic major, the ABA recommends that law school applicants acquire knowledge in certain basic areas, because these knowledge areas “are important to a sophisticated legal education and to the development of a competent attorney.” Thus the ABA asserts that the following knowledge areas, which may be explored through undergraduate classes, expand “one’s ability to derive the maximum benefit from legal education’:

  •  “A broad understanding of history, particularly American history, and the various factors … that have influenced the development of the pluralistic society that presently exists in the United States;
  •  “A fundamental understanding of political thought and theory and of the contemporary American political system;
  •  “A basic understanding of ethical theory and theories of justice;
  •  “A grounding in economics, particularly elementary microeconomic theory, and an understanding of the interaction between economic theory and public policy;
  •  “Some basic mathematical and financial skills, such as an understanding of basic precalculus mathematics and an ability to analyze financial data;
  •  “An understanding of diverse cultures within and beyond the United States, of international institutions and issues, and of the increasing interdependence of the nations and communities within our world.”
The validity of a doctrine does not depend on whose ox it gores.  -William O. Douglas

At Alma College majors/minors in the social sciences (business administration, economics, history, political science, sociology) have been popular choices, but Alma pre-law students have also majored in chemistry, foreign service, communication, philosophy, English, foreign languages, and other subjects. If you’re thinking about law school as one option for yourself, find a challenging area of study that you like and in which you do well. Supplement your area(s) of concentration with work in other subjects that will improve your chances for creative thinking power in the “paper chase.” A former Alma College pre-law advisor identified as essential to success in law school and being an attorney the following skills, which a good undergraduate education can provide:

  • Research: Awareness of sources and types of material, adaptation to particular use, methods of fact presentation.
  • Fact Completeness: Recognition of all facts, avoidance of preconception and fiction masquerading as fact, disciplined ability to withhold judgment until all facts are relayed.
  • Fact Differentiation: Ascertain relevance of facts to particular issues, varying importance of different facts, relative persuasiveness of various facts.
  • Fact Marshalling: Reduction of masses of fact to manageable proportions, arrangement of facts in logical and convincing order.
  • Deductive Reasoning: Use of syllogism, spotting logical fallacies, avoiding conclusions flowing from inaccurate premises.
  • Inductive Reasoning: Experimental methodology, accuracy of observation, elimination of variables, role of hypothesis, conditions essential to valid generalization (such as adequacy of sampling), strict limitation of conclusion by available reliable data.
  • Critical analysis: Disciplined skepticism in approach, thoroughness of inquiry, keenness of mind in cutting through to essentials.
  • Constructive synthesis: Systematic formulation of principles, meaningful organization of ideas, structural relationship of concepts.
  • Power of decision: Resolution of discoverable issues in the light of short- and long-term ends, found preferable on explicitly identified and justified grounds.

My Alma College education provided an excellent preparation for law school, and it has been invaluable to me … as an attorney.  The background in accounting, taxation, and finance has been especially useful in my business law practice.  Furthermore, the political science courses provided a clear understanding of the manner in which our government functions, as well as how other governmental systems throughout our world are structured. -Doutlas R. MacDonald ’82; George Washington ’85

Do I need to decide as an undergraduate in what area of the law I will specialize as an attorney?

No, but there are courses that focus on the law and legal systems offered in a wide range of departments. If your academic schedule permits, consider sampling them, but don’t overload your undergraduate curriculum with too many law-related courses. You will learn the basics of torts, property, contracts, civil and criminal jurisprudence, and other legal content areas in law school. Taking one or a few law/legal system courses at Alma can benefit you mainly by giving you an introduction to briefing cases, showing you how law reflects and shapes social values, honing your thinking and communication skills, and demonstrating how the law creates “winners” and “losers.” Law-related courses at Alma College include: 

  • BUS 325 and 326. Business Law I & II
  • COM 280/REL 280. Religion and the Supreme Court 
  • HST 121 and 122. American Legal History I & II
  • PHL 228. Ethics and Law
  • POL 131. Introduction to Political and Legal Thinking
  • POL 225. International Law and Organizations
  • POL 235. The Legal Experience
  • POL 335 and 336. Constitutional Law I & II

Prior to pre-registration for the Fall and Winter terms the Pre-Law Coordinator sends a list of recommended humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences classes to all pre-law students on the pre-law mailing list. These are courses, most of which satisfy distributive and/or major/minor requirements, deemed particularly beneficial to pre-law students because of their skill-building and/or content. They include, but are not restricted to, the following, and most of them are congruent with one or more “skill” or “knowledge” areas emphasized by the ABA:

  • BUS 221. Principles of Financial Accounting
  • BUS 222. Principles of Managerial Accounting
  • BUS 309. Principles of Finance
  • COM 111. Fundamentals of Speech Communication
  • COM 227. Argumentation and Public Advocacy
  • ECN 202. Principles of Microeconomics
  • ECN 339. History of Economic Thought
  • ENG 133. Introduction to Literary Analysis and other courses in literature
  • Most courses in American history
  • MTH 112. Pre-Calculus
  • MTH 120. Discrete Mathematics
  • MTH 121. Calculus I
  • PHL 103. Critical Thinking and other courses in philosophy
  • POL 101. The American Political System
  • POL 231. American Political Thought
  • POL 331. Classics of Political Thought
  • PSY 121. Introduction to Psychology
  • PAF 150. Public Affairs Colloquium
  • REL/PHL 225. Environmental Ethics
  • SOC 101. Principles of Sociology
  • SOC 241. Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Almost all [law school] tests involve written answers to a relatively small number of questions … .  This type of test was very similar to those I had taken … at Alma.  In contrast, many of my [law school] classmates … had never taken exams that were at all similar to law school tests.  -Timothy Miller ’82; Duke ’85

How important are extra-curricular activities, including community service, in getting admitted to law school?

The top two admissions criteria for most law schools are applicants’ performance on the Law School Admission Test (the dreaded LSAT) and their undergraduate academic record. However, many law schools do differentiate — sometimes just at the margins — between applicants based on other criteria, as well. These criteria may include the quality of an applicant’s “personal statement” (required by most law schools) and other written material provided by the applicant, reference letters written on behalf of an applicant, and an applicant?s life experiences. Undergraduates should participate in extra-curricular activities that are meaningful and fulfilling to them, not just to pad their law school resumes.  A law school applicant with a good-to-excellent academic record and a solid LSAT score should gain additional credibility in the eyes of most law school admissions committees if that applicant can show meaningful involvement in two of the following: campus or community leadership; competition and teamwork; communication and artistic skills demonstrated outside a classroom or narrowly “academic” setting; public service. The ABA’s Pre-Law Committee says that people considering entry into the legal profession “would be well served by having some significant experience, before coming to law school, in which they devoted substantial effort toward assisting others. Participation in public service projects or similar efforts at achieving objectives established for common purposes can be particularly  helpful.” Since members of the legal profession serve others, involvement in community/public service before attending law school will help prepare for a life of service as an attorney.