University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
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Pre-law Advisor
Dr. James R. Alexander

Pre-law as a Course of Undergraduate Study

In the broadest terms, the American Bar Association does not recognize specific courses of undergraduate study (majors) as necessarily "pre-law". Yet many colleges and universities, and most high school guidance counselors, use the term "pre-law" when addressing the needs and interests of students, so some clarification of what the term means is in order.

The designation "pre-law" is actually an indication of planned career direction. It says in effect "I plan to apply to law school when I graduate from college." Some students and their parents understand the term to mean a pre-professional program, similar to pre-medicine, or pre-pharmacy. However, there are few parallels with these more traditional pre-professional types of programs. Programs such as pre-medicine have a set curriculum, a set sequence of courses that must be completed with high grades in order for the student to be considered adequately prepared for (graduate study in) medicine.

In this sense alone, law schools differ quite markedly from schools of medicine. As publicly stated by the American Bar Association, law schools demand no specific major, no set curriculum of undergraduate study. Students enter the study of law from a wide variety of undergraduate fields. Traditionally they seem to come from the social sciences -- political science and history usually -- but many come from the humanities (literature, communications, languages, philosophy, etc.) and the natural sciences (psychology, biology, geology, mathematics, etc.). Some enter law school after completing teacher certification; some may enter after an undergraduate career in engineering technology. In fact, law schools encourage undergraduates to pursue diverse courses of study in their undergraduate career because the study and practice of law is involved with so many dimensions of society, and the more understanding the undergraduate brings to the study of law, the better.

Therefore, the term "pre-law" is a pre-professional designation that prescribes no set curriculum. Because pre-law is not an academic major, all undergraduates who consider themselves pre-law are required to choose one or more courses of academic study (a "major") befitting their interests and abilities, such as political science, economics, history, literature, biology, business, etc. In addition, they should also choose elective courses that will develop their basic analytical capacities (see below) in general preparation for law school admission and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).

How Students Become Interested in Pre-law Studies

It is always interesting to find how many students who profess an interest in going to law school know very little about law as a profession or law school as an academic experience. Many are attracted by the status of having a law degree, or simply being able to gain admission to law school. Others may think that law is a lucrative profession in which one can seek his own level of ambition. Still others see a law degree as a stepping stone to a tangent career, such as in business or elected political office. Some are even attracted by the intellectual intrigue of the law, a fascination with the legal maze and language which leaves so many of us completely baffled.

But let's face it--law school is basically three additional years of postgraduate study which is very demanding, if not intellectually, then certainly in terms of the sheer volume of academic work required. And basically it holds no promise of a guaranteed position after completion, as many accounts have shown in the last couple of years. Oftentimes, the legal profession is involved with title searches, wills, and bill collection, a far cry from "L.A. Law" or the Supreme Court. Frequently, it is far from lucrative, unless you get attached to and move up within a large law firm (and here there is stiff competition). Many with law degrees are moving into non-legal careers, because either positions in law are scarce, or their interests have changed. Those who are fascinated by legal complexities are soon dulled when taught the formulas, and several Pitt-Johnstown graduates who have gone to law school have found little intellectual exchange or debates in law classes. They discovered that, first and foremost, law is a profession and a vocation. It enforces conformity and emphasizes method. Law school itself is a fairly mechanical academic exercise, and most attorneys will admit that law school is far less interesting than the practice of law.

As an undergraduate student, you should consider whether or not you are interested in applying to law school sometime in your junior year, but certainly not sooner. Too often, entering freshmen come to Pitt-Johnstown declaring outright that they are "pre-law"; yet our experience has been that 60% of pre-law entering freshmen change their pattern of study and their major by the end of their sophomore year. Furthermore, about 20% of graduating seniors applying to law schools had originally intended to pursue a different career direction.

An undergraduate liberal arts college like Pitt-Johnstown has too many directions of intellectual pursuit and academic curiosity to be followed for a freshman to confine himself to a career direction before he even matriculates and enters his first classes. In many cases, college-level study in a particular field is far different and in many ways more challenging than in high school. Why law school? It is a far tougher question than many students, or their parents, can imagine, and a question not to be dismissed lightly. It is a question to be carefully considered, over a period of time and after a period of college study in various fields. Too often, the question is answered too early, for the wrong reasons, and by the wrong people.

Preparing for Law School Admission

A undergraduate pre-law program is best constructed as a wide liberal arts program, a program emphasizing exposure to a broad range of academic disciplines. Because the specific profession of law is taught in law school, the undergraduate program doesn't need to contain anything specific. Where one goes to undergraduate school or what he majors in becomes less important. The most successful applicants to law schools from Pitt-Johnstown have been in academic majors which require extensive, analytical reading and use testing methods which require sophisticated expression and communication skills, or have taken extensive course work in such disciplines. It is not required that pre-law students major in political science; it is simply a matter of circumstance that many pre-law undergraduates are also interested in politics or the political process, and tend to take course work in that area.

What is critical to understand is that your undergraduate career is a preparation for graduate work, and as such should emphasize the two skills most appropriate for law preparation--communications and analytical thinking. It is a relatively simple matter to seek out courses of study that come easiest, and yield the best grades. One course in logic and one course in English are not sufficient preparation for law school. Language skill is developed through reading and writing in a thorough and continuous manner; avoiding undergraduate courses that emphasize reading and communications skills may help your grades, but afford little development of language skills. Literacy on a sophisticated level is an acquired trait, not an inherited one. It is something that develops over time rather than something you were born with. In simple terms, you can fill your undergraduate curriculum with easy, undemanding courses, and cheat yourself in the long run.

The most fundamental mistake made by undergraduates and their parents is to assume that high achievement levels in high school automatically signal a sufficient intellectual and analytical level of ability to enter law training. Students who "coast", seeking the courses of least resistance and the classes with the least reading and the easiest testing, will have high grade averages but very little intellectual development beyond that with which they graduated from high school several years before.

Law School Admissions - the Pitt-Johnstown Record

The record of Pitt-Johnstown in placing graduates in law schools is solid. Generally speaking, students who have the grades and the Law Board scores get in, often to several schools. Graduates in the past five years have gained admission to the finest law schools in the region (Pittsburgh, Dickinson, Duquesne, Temple) and some of the finest in the country (Harvard, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Texas). It is clear that Pitt-Johnstown students are competitive with undergraduates around the country for law school admissions, and their Law Board scores indicate their preparation at the undergraduate level is quite adequate.

To be complete, the record also indicates a small percentage of Pitt-Johnstown graduates are rejected by all law schools to which they apply. This occurs for one of two reasons: either the student's record is not sufficiently strong to gain admission, or the student applied to law schools "above his head", i.e. applied to schools for which he had little chance of admission. Most law schools require a minimum overall grade average of 3.3, somewhere between a B and B+. Some students persist in applying to law schools even though their average is below 3.0, and in virtually all cases they are turned down.

The record demonstrates that Pitt-Johnstown is a solid and appropriate undergraduate college in which to prepare for the study of law. It offers a wide range of courses of study, many of which demand the development of analytical thinking and communication skills. In this, Pitt-Johnstown is similar to most quality small colleges and has a record of successful admissions to the full spectrum of the nation's law schools. As with all colleges, Pitt-Johnstown presents an opportunity to prepare for the study of law. It does not provide a guarantee of law school admission.

Pre-law Advising at Pitt-Johnstown

We offer a complete pre-law advising process, including access to all information and catalogs students should need, and a pre-law advisor experienced in the application/matriculation process. It should be fairly clear however that this advising process need not be brought into play until the junior year. At that time, the student will have available to him application forms, catalogs, information packages, materials on law careers, and full information on Law Board examinations.

Last Reviewed: November 18, 2004