What to Know About Prelaw College Majors
A prelaw major isn’t the only or even necessarily the best option for future lawyers, experts say.
By Ilana Kowarski
June 25, 2020
A COMMON MISCONCEPTION among law school hopefuls is the belief that they must pursue a college major that is law-related, but J.D. admissions experts say nothing could be further from the truth.
A prelaw major is not mandatory for admission to law school, experts emphasize, and it’s not even available at many undergraduate institutions. Because colleges often refrain from offering professional degrees and instead focus on traditional academic disciplines like history and chemistry, schools that offer a prelaw major are the exception to the norm, according to experts.
Prelaw college majors are designed to prepare aspiring lawyers for law school, and these majors often include an eclectic combination of humanities and social science classes ranging from philosophy to political science. An undergraduate prelaw curriculum may also include seminars on specific areas of law like constitutional law, and it could include classes on topics relevant to the practice of law such as rhetoric, public policy, psychology, sociology, accounting or economics.
Although this field of study touches on many subjects that might be intriguing to aspiring attorneys, there are other concentrations that can provide a solid foundation for a legal education, experts say, noting that an undergraduate degree in nearly any field can set the stage for a law degree.
One reason aspiring lawyers have so much flexibility when choosing what they study is that law schools do not expect incoming students to have specific content knowledge, explains attorney Jeffrey Molinaro, a partner with Fuerst Ittleman David & Joseph, a Miami-based business law firm.
“There is no real set curriculum, and there is no real knowledge base that is tested on the entrance exam for law school,” Molinaro added, referring to the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT. “It’s a skill-based test.”
Current and former law school admissions officials encourage prospective law students to take college courses that they find most compelling, as long as those classes are challenging. They stress that unlike medical schools, which will consider applicants only if they have completed certain prerequisite classes such as organic chemistry, law schools typically do not instruct candidates about the undergraduate courses they should take.
Christine Carr, a law school admissions consultant with Accepted and former associate director of J.D. admissions at Boston University School of Law, observes that college students tend to do well when they focus on subjects they enjoy.
“The choice of major should not be made solely ‘because it will look good on a law school application and show that I am interested’ – that is what the personal statement is for,” she wrote in an email, adding that college students may join their school’s prelaw society regardless of their major.
Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting and former dean of admissions for the University of Chicago Law School, says law schools don’t “have any special preference” for prelaw majors.
“Admissions officers are mostly agnostic when it comes to choice of major and indeed try to assemble a class with a variety of different backgrounds and areas of expertise,” Ivey wrote in an email. “And in a moment of candor, they would probably also tell you that they don’t consider pre-law majors to be all that analogous to what you do in law school, and that it’s better to wait until you get to law school to study law.”
Some law school faculty members discourage aspiring lawyers from pursuing prelaw majors.
“A prelaw major doesn’t provide particular subject matter skills, and may therefore be a wasted opportunity,” Nora V. Demleitner, the Roy L. Steinheimer, Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia, wrote in an email. “After all, in today’s law practice lawyers often benefit from subject matter knowledge, such as acquired in data science, health, art, forensics, depending on the practice area. Why limit your exposure and interest to law only?”
David Jacoby, an adjunct professor of law at Fordham University School of Law in New York City and a partner at the Culhane Meadows corporate law firm, notes that college may be a future lawyer’s last opportunity to study a subject besides law.
There is also a risk that someone who begins college as a prelaw major might discover later that he or she doesn’t want to become a lawyer, Jacoby adds. He warns against exclusively taking law-related classes. “You’re sort of narrowing your options to a considerable extent at that point.”
Victoria Turner Turco, founder and president of Turner Educational Advising, suggests that not all prelaw programs are equivalent. Aspiring lawyers should steer clear of vocationally oriented and technically focused prelaw majors that are designed to train paralegals.
If someone does opt for a prelaw degree, it should be a traditional liberal arts degree that will cultivate the intellectual habits necessary for legal practice, says Turco, who managed a prelaw and professional development program at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia for more than a decade.
Admissions data collected and reported by the Law School Admission Council reveals that in the 2019-2020 academic year, law school hopefuls who majored in prelaw and related fields such as law, political science and legal studies did not receive the highest LSAT scores on average, nor did they have the highest law school acceptance rates among majors.
Kellye Testy, the LSAC’s president and CEO, says she takes a “pretty neutral” view on prelaw majors since her opinion is that aspiring lawyers can benefit from any rigorous undergraduate program that is taught by excellent faculty.
“No matter what somebody’s teaching, you’ll learn more from a great teacher. It doesn’t matter the subject.”