The Dartmouth college newspaper recently reported that in 2014, 120,000 students matriculated into law schools, which is the smallest class since 1987 and a 7% decline from 2013. This is likely a reflection of the oversupply of lawyers throughout the country. Yet there are many who still aspire to the degree.
Since I now have two college-aged daughters, I am often asked by their friends (who one day hope to become lawyers) whether they should, as an undergraduate in college, major in pre-law.
I always tell them “No!”
Before being accepted into and attending law school in the United States, one must first earn an undergraduate degree. The degree can be in anything, so long as it is earned at an accredited institution. Many colleges and universities now offer a “pre-law” curriculum designed to attract undergraduate students who plan to attend law school.
I advise against an undergraduate degree in pre-law because I believe that it doesn’t provide a solid foundation in a base knowledge that is necessary to become a better practicing lawyer. Further, I believe that a pre-law degree doesn’t give the student any more than what he or she will learn during their first year of law school. A pre-law major, for example, will likely take courses in introductory research, writing and reasoning classes, philosophy of law and courses covering the makeup of our government and constitutional systems.
First year law students get all of that and more as they are required to complete courses in contracts, torts, jurisprudence (history of the law), research and writing, constitutional, criminal, civil procedure, and property law. The second and third year of law school allows the student to take “electives” where they can learn certain specialty areas, which is very important today, since law, like most occupations is highly specialized.
You don’t find many “general practitioners” any more, as most attorneys concentrate their practices in one field or another such as estate planning, tax, real estate, business organizations, civil litigation, intellectual property, and family practice.
If one wants to become a tax or estate planning attorney, for example, it would be far better as an undergraduate to major in accounting or business so that the student will have a frame of reference for the complex income, gift, estate, business, and trust laws that they will encounter in practice. Many attorneys who practice intellectual property law (patents, trademarks and copyrights) have an engineering degree which helps them understand the complexities of their clients’ inventions. One of my law school classmates was a physician who went into medical malpractice law.
Other undergraduate majors that aren’t occupational specific serve better than pre-law in the lead in to law school. English and literature majors, for example, become proficient in reading, analyzing and expressing thoughts through superior written communication skills. Some of my classmates who were tapped to write for the prestigious Florida Law Review were English majors as undergrads.
The problem with what I am recommending is that it asks an eighteen or nineteen year old not only to commit to a path that leads to law school, but also to commit to a specific type of law. Most young people coming out of high school have no idea where their career interests may lie.
One good way to look at obtaining an undergraduate degree that provides certain definable skills is that if the individual changes their mind about going to law school, at least they will have a solid undergraduate degree in something worthwhile. Where is a pre-law degree going to take you if you either can’t get into law school or don’t want to go after your undergraduate years? Perhaps it would be a good background to work as a paralegal or in law enforcement, so if that’s your fall back, then that could work.
A varied undergraduate degree will also help the student land their first job. As an estate planning lawyer, when I am looking to add an associate lawyer in my office I’ll likely look for a candidate who has an accounting or business background. In my field of work, I feel that a candidate with such a background will likely hit the ground running faster than someone with a pre-law undergraduate degree.
Equally important to the undergraduate degree is the course work that the student selects in their second and third years of law school. Most law schools offer a wide variety of electives for the second and third years, allowing students to specialize their education into a given field.
There are many choices out there. If one is crazy enough to want to earn a law degree and then go out and practice law, I hope that I have provided some valuable insight.
The Sheppard Law Firm has its main in Fort Myers and also in Naples by appointment.
© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.