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Choosing an Undergraduate Law College

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There are more than three thousand accredited universities and colleges. 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 a graduate of a distinguished school. But the time when it was necessary to graduate from Harvard to go to Harvard Law School is long over. For the purpose of getting into law school, where you went to college is much less important than how well you did there.

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All accredited colleges and universities 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 faculty members from the same few graduate schools; these teachers all organize their subjects in the same ways and use the same textbooks. Compare the descriptions of the courses required for a political science major in various college catalogs. All of them-Hometown State as well as Harvard-require thirty or so semester hours of work in courses with titles like American govern-ment, international relations, political philosophy, and public law. Bigger schools offer a larger variety of specialized courses; but all of the programs are similar in outline.

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. Securing a diversified student body is an important secondary goal at all national law schools. Regional schools that are trying to improve their reputations stress it even more.

Ethnic and racial diversity are important, and the best law schools all have dynamic affirmative action programs. But regional diversity is even more important. Admissions committees have nightmares about winding up with freshman classes overloaded with students from their immediate localities-classes they describe with adjectives like inbred and incestuous.

Regional diversity has become an important indicator of quality in a law school. Drake proudly advertises that its 1991 freshman class "is drawn from nearly half the states." The University of Dayton Law School reports that graduates of more than 100 undergraduate schools are represented in its freshman class of 176, and the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law counts graduates of more than 160 universities in its freshman class of 330. Lewis and Clark University's Northwestern School of Law enrolls 701 students from more than 230 universities.

That's not to say that all undergraduate colleges are equal. Some are known to be especially good at pre-professional placement, while others provide superior prelaw preparation. You've probably heard rumors that law schools have equivalency formulas: a B earned at prestigious college X is worth as much as an A on your transcript if that A comes from second-rate college Y.

It doesn't work quite that way. True, law school administrators tend to view more favorably graduates of schools from which the law school has gotten good students in the past, or of schools with reputations for good prelaw preparation. Here is how Rennard Strickland, himself a law school admissions committee member, put it in his 1974 book, How to Get Into Law School (New York: Hawthorn Press): In truth, I think the quality-of-school question is more a "burden-of-proof" question. Students from a lower prestige school or one with a poor performance record must have higher grades and LSAT test scores than students from an institution regarded as higher in quality. This is especially important in cases of borderline applicants and individuals with almost identical scores. This is just one of the facts of life. ... At the undergraduate level, quality of the school can be important but not necessarily determinative.

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But in my experience, the direct benefits of education at a prestigious school are neither as great nor as systematic as Strickland suggests. Grades, converted to a four-point scale, are usually equated as though all accredited schools are the same. At most, there's a tendency to give the candidate from a better regarded school the benefit of the doubt if he or she is near the dividing line between acceptance and rejection, or to take the applicant from the better regarded school when a choice must be made between two candidates with similar records.

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. If you attend a big state university, where there are crowded classes and long lines in front of every professor's office door, you'll need to be more motivated and more of a self-starter in order to do well.

Therefore, you're well advised to go to the best college that you can. But you're not banned forever from going to law school because you didn't attend a distinguished undergraduate institution. Law schools know that most undergraduates don't have much choice about where they will go to school. They know that there are good students everywhere, even at poor schools. Even if you attended old Hometown State, law school recruiters will notice you-if your grades are good enough. "I don't care if a kid comes from a nowhere school," a law school dean once told me. "If a professor writes a letter that says, 'This is the best such-and-such major I've seen in twenty years of teaching,' then I want to at least take a look at that kid."

Law schools do not require any particular course of study. Some give no guidance at all. "Studies show that there is no correlation between undergraduate major and success in law school," asserts the University of Nebraska. The University of Michigan, one of the country's most selective law schools, says only that one could receive satisfactory preparation in most undergraduate majors, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular college, department, or instructors involved.

Some law schools discuss prelaw courses of study in terms of the skills that the student should develop. Here, for example, is what the University of Utah has to say on the subject: Most undergraduate majors can provide the preparation needed for law study. Whatever your chosen major, the program should equip you with the intellectual tools needed for the study and practice of law. These tools include the ability to express concepts clearly; the capacity to read concentrated materials with precise understanding and attention to detail; and the power to reason, weigh facts, and solve problems. You should emphasize studies that develop powers of comprehension and that cultivate creative and logical thinking.

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