As a career adviser for lawyers, I sometimes field questions from aspiring lawyers (or their parents). One of these frequently asked questions is: What are the best college majors and activities for law school preparation?
Many assume a program focused on the basics of the American legal system, combined with public speaking or student government activities, are the best preparation for law school. But while it’s helpful to know a bit about public speaking, the legal system, its basis, history, and functions before attending law school, that pre-training during college isn’t necessary for admission into law school or for success as a lawyer.
What’s far more critical is a student’s pre-training in thinking like a lawyer.
And this brings us to an open secret: the primary mission of law school is to teach students to think like lawyers, not to teach substantive areas of law. If you carefully review the websites and promotional materials of law schools, you’ll see explicit and implicit evidence of this mission. Moreover, if you spend a lot of time—as I do—talking to experienced attorneys about hiring, mentoring, and keys to success, then you’ll hear this theme over and over.
So what does “thinking like a lawyer” mean? The ability to think through complex problems, to research and understand underlying drivers, and to identify and communicate solutions. This ability, in turn, requires attention to detail, determination, focus, and appreciation of micro-factors (the specifics of an individual problem) and macro-factors (the greater context).
The best majors and activities for college students to prepare for law school and for success after, therefore, are ones that pre-train in the elements of thinking like a lawyer.
- Issue identification. The first step in solving a problem is understanding what the problem is. Lawyers need to cut through extraneous and irrelevant information in order to zero in on specific areas of contention.
- Attention to detail. Misplaced punctuation can be the difference in millions of dollars. Ambiguity can lead to disputes. Careful, in-depth legal research and factual investigations prevent wrongful convictions and more. Successful lawyers understand the importance of detail and nuance in avoiding problems and as well as in finding solutions.
- Appreciation of the greater context. Lawyers need to understand the political, economic, social, historical, philosophical, and other contexts of the problems they face, as well as an individual client’s goals. Appreciation of the greater societal context enables lawyers to understand the likely impact of actions (or inaction), and to make arguments or suggest solutions based on that anticipated impact. Appreciation of client goals empowers lawyers to suggest alternative routes (which may be less risky, more cost-effective, and just as emotionally satisfying for the client) to the same goal.
- Critical thinking. Lawyers can’t afford to accept what they’re told without questioning it. They need to put aside personal feelings and to think objectively. They record information, analyze it, investigate it, and verify it. They probe for strengths and weakness, and consider the reliability and authority of the source of the information. They look for alternative explanations. They evaluate the evidence, determine what additional proof is needed to bolster their position, and decide how to present their proof in the best way.
- Creative thinking. Very few areas of law involve assembly-line work. No two cases or clients are identical. Many lawyers are challenged by continually evolving law, facts, client goals, economic realities, new technologies, and other factors. Lawyers need to be adaptable, employing the theories and best practices from one discipline to another.
- Evaluation of different perspectives. This includes applying law to specific factual situations, identifying of strengths and weaknesses of arguments, and understanding the motivation of parties. Are they motivated by money? Ego? A sense of right and wrong? Understanding perspectives and motivation helps lawyers effectively argue for their clients, bring parties to the bargaining table, and ultimately settle disputes.
- Oral and written communication. Even the most brilliant advice and arguments can’t be effective if they aren’t communicated well. Precision is important. And while the need for precision led to the unfortunate development of legalese, the modern trend has been toward plain English. Lawyers must be able to explain complex legal and technical concepts. They must understand how to communicate effectively with different audiences (whether judges, juries, clients, the general public, or other). Lawyerly arguments are about persuading, negotiating, and compromising—not brow-beating others into submission.
- Discipline and determination, prioritization, and multitasking. Lawyers must be able to perform under pressure. Deadlines are often short. Emotions and egos are stressed. Complex matters must be broken down into parts and assigned, progress monitored, and work product recombined. For many lawyers, everyday exercises their ability to triage, manage work tasks and personalities, and fight through setbacks and adversity. Grit and follow through are necessities.
So what types of college majors help build these skills? Many people think of American history, English, economics, political science, and international relations, and those are indeed good choices. But any rigorous discipline can be a good choice. There are successful attorneys who spent their college years focused on mathematics, computer science, engineering, physics, philosophy, languages, music, dance, and more.
And what types of activities help build these skills? People think of student government, debate team, student newspapers, and the like. But again, any rigorous discipline can be a good choice. There are successful attorneys who spent years focused on the competition and performance in the arts and athletics, developing creative entrepreneurial skills, or committing to mission-driven activities. Nearly any activity can help students develop the skills critical for achievement in the workplace, if those activities are taken to master level. After all, it takes no more self-discipline to become a lawyer than it does to become an Eagle Scout or a master chocolatier; it’s simply a matter of applying that self-discipline in another context.
In the real world, lawyers of many different backgrounds can find their niche. And so instead of just focusing on the substance of a major or activity, also consider the transferable skill sets that major or activity builds.
A version of this article, “Best College Majors and Activities for Aspiring Law School Students,” by Shauna C. Bryce, originally appeared in the National Career Development Association’s (NCDA) web magazine, Career Convergence, at www.ncda.org. Copyright Sept. 2012. Reprinted with permission.