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What Happens in the Legal Classroom

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The path to the Bar begins at an accredited undergraduate college or university. In this article I will give you some tips on using your undergraduate time well. You will want to spend those four years ensuring your admittance to law school and learning things that will help you do well once you are there. If you're just beginning your college career, or if you're still in high school, you'll be able to use most of this information. If you're a college senior or a nontraditional, you're stuck with the undergraduate record you already have. But read this chapter anyway to get some perspective on how law schools will evaluate your education.

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In other words, any major is OK as long as it teaches you to read, write, and think with the necessary degree of sophistication.

When law schools talk about specific courses, they always describe a "broad general background" or a "broad, general education" in the humanities and social sciences. They suggest some coursework in English literature, political science, sociology, philosophy, American history, communications (including forensics and speech), psychology, economics, business, and accounting. I'll refer to these broad general education subjects as BGEs (my students call them "beegees"). They are all subjects that will help you prepare for law school work. By the time you graduate, you should have coursework in each on your transcript.

The rule is that you can major in any intellectually challenging subject as long as your grades are good and you have time to work in all these varied BGEs. Here is how Michigan Law School judges the value of a major:

Preparatory instruction is effective to the extent that it makes demands on students to enlarge their capacities to read, write, speak, think and see the relationships among ideas and their human contexts.

I know, I know: you have to choose a major, and statements like this don't help you very much.

Some statistics may help. At Bradley, we find that prelaw students are scattered over a wide variety of majors. Political science is most common, followed by English, accounting, and business administration. Valparaiso University Law School found that the 168 students in the incoming class of 1994 represented 48 different majors. Political science was most common, followed in descending order by history, English, business, finance, and psychology. Two years ago Columbia found that about 20 percent of recently enrolled students had back-grounds in political science, 15 percent in history, 15 percent in economics, 10 percent in English, and 5 percent in philosophy. All these majors are good; all put you to work studying subjects and learning skills you will be able to use in law school.

Even if you confine yourself to common majors, you will still have to choose from a very long list. Each one has something to recommend it. One Chicago lawyer who was once a teacher of English literature says that the best major for law school is the study of poetry because poetry teaches you to pay close attention to a written text. He is quite correct. Accountants remind us that all law, in a sense, is business law, and that accounting is the way you learn to understand business. They are correct also. Political scientists note the close link between law and politics, and they are also most correct. Even journalism and communications professors link the forensics skills they teach with legal success. And they are correct, too.

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One strategy is to major in something you like and enjoy, so you will be motivated to study hard and get good grades. Never lose sight of the main point: accounting or some other traditional prelaw subject may be useful once you get into law school, but good grades are what you need to get in. Make a list of your interests. You may want to wait until the end of your freshman year in college before declaring a major so you'll have an adequate chance to see what college subjects stimulate your curiosity.

A second option is to major in one of the BGE subjects, perhaps whichever one is the favored concentration among other serious pre-law students on your campus. Some colleges are now returning to the idea of a "prelaw program." Usually, this means that you major in a subject relevant to law-most commonly political science-and the department assigns you to an adviser who works with prelaws. No additional coursework is required beyond what is required of all political science majors. But the adviser is responsible for making sure that you take courses in all the BGEs as well. If your school has such a program, you should consider it. If nothing else, it will give you a better chance to meet the faculty members and students with whom you have the most in common. But remember that fitting in with other prelaw students is a means to an end, not the end in itself. Don't major in the prelaw program's department if you think you can get better grades in some other subject.

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A third option, available on some campuses, is to design your own major. If your college catalog describes a nonmajor or "general liberal arts" program, you may want to consult one of the program's academic advisers. Make sure the adviser knows that you want to go to law school and that any program you design must have room for all the BGEs. He or she will ask you if there's a subject you are especially interested in. Perhaps you're interested in Egyptian antiquities. It may be possible to design a program that would include courses in the history of ancient Egypt, political science courses dealing with the problems of regulating international trade in antiquities, business courses dealing with the art business, foreign language courses in Arabic, and so on.

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