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How Law Schools Will Evaluate Your Education

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Choosing a College

There are several accredited colleges and universities in the United States. They vary in quality and reputation, ranging from world-famous schools like Harvard and Swarthmore to local schools unknown outside of a small region. There are many advantages in being the graduate of a distinguished school. But if there ever was a time when it was necessary to graduate from Harvard to go to the Harvard Law School, that time is long over. For the purpose of getting into law school, where you went to college is much less important than what you studied and how well you did.


How Law Schools Will Evaluate Your Education


All accredited colleges are now much more alike than they are different. Most now offer the standard liberal arts and business subjects that law schools want to see on your transcript. They hire their full-time teachers from the same few graduate schools, and these teachers organize their subjects in the same ways and use the same textbooks. Compare the descriptions of, say, a political science major in various college catalogs. All the colleges- Hometown State as well as Harvard-require thirty or so semester hours of work in courses with titles like American government, international relations, political philosophy, and public law. Bigger schools may offer a larger variety of specialized courses. Better schools have more well-known scholars on the payroll. But all of the programs are similar in outline.

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Being from an unusual background may actually help you. Law schools have learned that the most fertile educational climate exists when the students come from diverse backgrounds and bring diverse experiences to their studies. Top law schools have long sought "a diversified student body" as an important secondary recruiting goal. Regional schools that are trying to improve their reputations stress diversity even more. Ethnic and racial diversity are important, and the best law schools all have dynamic affirmative action programs. But geographic diversity is even more important. Admissions committees fear winding up overloaded with students from their immediate localities. They try to avoid what they call "inbred" or "incestuous" freshman classes.

The advantage of the better schools is chiefly indirect. Because they provide smaller classes, more knowledgeable and concerned faculty members, and like-minded and well-motivated fellow students, they make it easier for you to work hard and get the good grades that law schools require. Good fellow-students are especially important, because similarly ambitious colleagues stimulate each other with friendly competition and help each other along the way. If you attend a large state university, with crowded classes, long lines in front of each professor's office door, and students who begin the competitive beer drinking the day after the semester starts, you'll need to be more motivated, more self-disciplined, and more of a self-starter in order to do well.

Choosing a Major

If you are interested in environmental protection law, a rapidly growing field, you should investigate a major, double major or minor in some appropriate scientific or technical field. If you are going to protect, say, rivers and streams from pollution, it is helpful to understand the chemical processes by which water is threatened and the common industrial processes that use polluting chemicals. Washington University (St. Louis) Law School, a leader in environmental protection law, is so sure that the future belongs to technically educated lawyers that it offers three joint-degree programs. Each combines a law degree with an MS or MA degree in some field of environmental engineering or technology. To study science or engineering on the graduate level, you will need to understand the undergraduate levels of these fields.

Legal specialties are evolving rapidly, and more and more of them are requiring specialized undergraduate educations. If you want to practice international law, foreign languages are helpful; for Native American or civil rights law, some knowledge of minority cultures is essential. If you know that your goal is some such specialized area of the law, discuss your plans with your prelaw adviser. He or she can help you choose the appropriate major, double major, or minor.

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As you read this long list of good choices, you may be wondering if there is such a thing as dJoad major. Well, there aren't many. But there are a few pitfalls. First, beware the easy major. Here is the advice of the Law School Admission Council:

"High academic standards are important when selecting your undergraduate courses. The range of acceptable majors is broad; the quality of the education you receive is most important. Undergraduate programs should reveal your capacity to perform well at an academically rigorous level. An undergraduate career that is narrow, unchallenging or vocationally oriented is not the best preparation for law school."

Whatever you decide to major in, consult with your academic adviser regularly, even if you have to stand in a long line to do it. Be sure that your adviser knows that you intend to go to law school. Work the information into your first conversation with your adviser, and ask that it be written down in your file. Each semester, when you review your program and choose your courses, make a point of reminding your adviser of your interest in law school. It is his or her responsibility to make sure that you are making progress toward your career goals.

Choosing Courses

Beyond that, you're on your own. Depending on your major, you'll have free choice of as many as half of the courses you'll take before graduation. How do you pick specific courses?

Sociology offers courses in family structure, which are of value to people pursuing careers in family law, and area studies programs offer courses in foreign legal and business institutions. Your academic adviser can help you identify these courses, as can your prelaw adviser. In fact, your prelaw adviser may keep a list. One of the values of mentoring programs, prelaw clubs, and talking to alumni who are now law students is that all these contacts can steer you toward useful undergraduate coursework.

Working on Your Skills

There is value in choosing courses best suited to developing the skills you will use in law school. The most basic of these are reading, writing, and speaking. Developing them won't help you get into law school, except to the extent that they help you improve your undergraduate grades. But these basic skills will be of incalculable value once you become a law student.

Reading

This is what law students do each day: they wake up, they have their coffee, and then they read and write. Sometimes they communicate with each other about what they have been reading. Sometimes they apply what they have learned in classrooms, moot courts, or clinics. And sometimes they are tested on their ability to recall and apply what they have read. That's it-that's what a legal education is. Practicing lawyers may spend proportionately more time communicating orally. But they still read. Since you're going to be spending most of your time doing it, reading should be easy and enjoyable. If it isn't, then your working life as a lawyer will be a living hell.

Writing

Strong writing skills are important for law students, who must take required courses in legal writing and turn out seminar papers, outlines, course summaries, and essay exams. Writing skills are, if possible, even more important for practicing attorneys, who spend much of their time drafting letters, memos, briefs, contracts, and even legislation.

If you don't write well, you should consider taking courses in which you can learn such basic techniques as organization. English departments offer expository writing courses; at some large schools, there are courses at various skill levels. Since writing is a skill that improves with practice, you should seek out opportunities to write. Don't shirk courses that require term papers and essay exams. The most valuable courses are those in which you have the opportunity to rewrite the same story or essay several times, under a teacher's close supervision. Some creative writing courses fit this description; look for small class size and a teacher who is also a writer.

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Harvard Law School.

    


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