There are many reasons why you may be drawn to law school. Maybe you had helpful mentors along the way or have a strange fascination with semi-colons; perhaps you or a loved one had a bad experience with the law (or more likely with a lawyer), and you're tired of feeling powerless. Whatever the reason, preparation is the key to success, and the decisions you make in college, including which one you choose to attend, can help open the right doors for you down the road.
If you're considering pursuing a law degree, you can narrow your choice of programs by considering a few big-picture items first.
Think About the Bigger Picture
Keep the bigger picture in mind when making those smaller "tactical" decisions as you prepare for law school. Some questions you might consider are:
- What area of law am I interested in practicing, if any?
- Do I see myself thundering away in a courtroom or digging into dusty legal tomes in search of answers?
- Am I looking to help the less fortunate, or is law school more of a business opportunity for me?
The American Bar Association offers a free Legal Career Quiz to let you know where you might fit into the legal profession, which can also help to illuminate your big picture.
Best Undergraduate Majors for Law School Applicants
Most law schools require applicants to have completed a bachelor's degree before enrollment in a J.D. program. However, some (including California) will accept applicants who have an associate's degree or other qualifications.
Although there are some advantages to pre-law programs in undergrad, law schools today accept applicants with a wide variety of pre-law majors. There is no required coursework to complete before attending law school -- in fact, pre-law is not a major at most colleges but rather an unofficial “track."
You may be drawn to the more traditional humanities or liberal arts foundation, such as history, English, or philosophy. Or maybe you're a music major or a business student. Any area of study that interests you and encourages critical thinking will provide a sound foundation for law school.
However, keep in mind that some legal fields have additional requirements. For example, to register for the patent bar, you must have a bachelor's, master's, or Ph.D. in a “recognized technical subject." Most science or engineering programs will fulfill this requirement.
Choosing the Right Pre-Law Undergraduate Program
No undergraduate program can guarantee you a seat in law school. While some colleges might help you to look good on paper, at the end of the day, law school admissions offices are looking beyond the header on your college acceptance letter to your actual undergraduate GPA and experience (as well as your LSAT scores). That's why choosing a college based on the opportunities it offers academically, rather than on name recognition, gives you a better chance of unlocking the law school door.
While you can view various rankings of the best pre-law schools, some of the more substantive things to consider are whether a college has, among other things:
- Pre-law, legal studies, public policy, political science, or criminal justice programs
- Faculty with legal backgrounds and experience
- Opportunities to participate in undergraduate moot court/mock trial competitions and other extracurriculars
- Workshops on the law and law school
- Pre-law student organizations
- Guest speakers/presentations on the law
- Pre-law internship opportunities
If you are looking for name recognition, schools like Georgetown University, Columbia University, Yale University, and Harvard College are prestigious feeder schools for a reason. Depending on the career path you want after law school, it might be worthwhile to pursue an Ivy League undergrad. However, for most attorneys, the institution listed on their undergraduate degree doesn't matter much.
Colleges like the University of Cincinnati, Illinois State University, and Loyola University also offer paralegal studies programs for undergraduates. With these programs, you can not only gain substantive and practical knowledge of the law, but you can also obtain a paralegal certification in the process. This could lead to valuable work experience if you're thinking about taking some time off before law school.
Some colleges have other unique opportunities for pre-law undergraduates. The University of Utah, for example, has a "LEAP Program" in which students interested in law school are placed in a community that takes pre-law courses together and can also receive support in preparing applications to law school. When you're gathering information about prospective schools, inquire about whether they have an on-campus law society.
The University of Maryland offers a unique three-year arts/law program, where students can apply to law school during their junior year of undergrad. Then their final year overlaps with their first year of law school, speeding up their journey to practicing law. They also offer pre-law advising to connect students with mentors and law professors.
There may also be other indirect advantages to certain colleges. For example, some colleges host associations like the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, which holds a number of law-related events and competitions for its various chapters. These extra-curricular opportunities not only give you good experience (and content for your law school application), but they also help to expose you to a broader community of undergraduates interested in a legal career -- your future peers in the practice.
The Home Field Advantage
Another factor to consider when considering the best colleges for you is that some law schools tend to favor students from their undergraduate programs. For example, the highly ranked U.C. Berkeley School of Law has recognized higher acceptance rates for applicants who are Berkeley undergrads. With this in mind, you may want to start your pre-law college search by first looking at where you might want to attend law school. This goes back to the importance of having a big-picture strategy. As with pre-law colleges, there are various measures and rankings to consider when researching law school programs.
Selecting the best pre-law college is one of the first steps toward a successful career in the legal field. While the school you choose is not necessarily determinative of what law school you'll attend, selecting the right undergraduate program for you can certainly set you up for success down the road. Learn more about how to best prepare yourself for law school and a legal career at FindLaw for Law Students.