The University of California—Berkeley's description of what its legal studies major is—and isn't—evokes surrealist René Magritte's painting of a pipe with the French inscription, "This is not a pipe." Despite its name, the major wasn't designed to prepare students for law school, but the Berkeley website states that it attracts aspiring J.D.'s, since it develops critical analysis and debate skills.
For undergraduates, selecting a major and charting a career path can be challenging. And for prelaw students, it can be particularly tough to choose a major, since there are no prerequisites for law school, like there are for medical school, for example. Perhaps that's why the University of Mississippi didn't think it was stating the obvious when introducing its webpage devoted to future J.D. applicants with a definition of the word "lawyer."
The American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar officially states on its website that there is no one path to law school: "The ABA does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education."
But while many university websites direct prelaw students to that ABA disclaimer, there's a difference of opinion on the degree to which, if at all, students can maximize their law school admissions chances through their selection of undergraduate majors. "Don't major in criminal justice if you want to go to law school," reads the title of a post on the blog Above the Law, for example, while some universities swear by the effectiveness of their prelaw programs.
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According to data from 78,000 law school applicants in 2011-2012, provided to U.S. News by the Law School Admission Council, students who majored in prelaw were less likely to be admitted to law school than those who chose other majors.
While philosophy, economics, and journalism majors were admitted to law school at rates of 82, 79, and 76 percent, respectively, those numbers were much lower for prelaw (61 percent) and criminal justice (52 percent) majors, according to LSAC, which administers the LSAT.
But that data shouldn't necessarily impress students, according to Staci Zaretsky, an editor of Above the Law and an alumna of Western New England University School of Law. "You really need to look at the big picture," she says. "Perhaps the people with prelaw and criminal justice majors didn't have the grades and LSAT scores necessary to get into law school."
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Aspiring lawyers should try to get the best grades—in whatever major they choose—and highest LSAT scores that they can, advises Zaretsky, but they still may be up against an unspoken admissions calculus. "Law schools are pretty good about being able to discern the difference between a 4.0 [GPA] in art versus a 4.0 in chemistry," she says, noting a difference between "hard" majors—such as business, science, and engineering—and "soft" ones, like art and humanities.
Jon Lucas, a third year law student at North Carolina Central University School of Law, says his undergraduate major in political science at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill "unequivocally" did not help prepare him for law school. His minor in English, which required him to read "voluminous amounts of literature," however, served him better.
If he were applying to law school today, Lucas would major in English, business, economics, or philosophy. "Most of my colleagues that majored in prelaw advise that there was not much benefit for them in terms of having a head start in law school," he says.
Despite the criticisms, some schools are investing in prelaw training. Saint Xavier University in Chicago created a "pre-law program" in fall 2011, which "assists students in all majors who plan to seek admission to law school or a legal career after graduation." The University of Texas—Arlington, which offers prelaw concentrations through its departments of political science, history, criminology and criminal justice, and philosophy, recently launched a new Pre-Law and Legal Studies Center, and George Washington University is weighing a minor in law and society, the GW Hatchet, a student newspaper, reported last month.
Other schools have longer standing programs, such as University of Maryland—University College, which offers a major in legal studies, and Nova Southeastern University in Florida, which also has a legal studies major designed for students with law school or other graduate legal study ambitions. The UMUC program "provides a solid foundation for challenging paralegal work in various legal settings as well as for further education in a variety of fields," according to its site.
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But the bachelor of science in legal studies program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., which launched in 2011, is unique, says Eric Friedman, the program director.
Champlain's curriculum emphasizes not only theory, but also practice, with courses in criminal, contract, real estate, torts, family, and constitutional law, he says. Most of the other legal studies majors at other schools are "mere spin-offs of prelaw political science and philosophy courses," he adds.
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