Optimizing your Preparation for Law School
Law Schools do not require specific courses for admission. Exceptional students can do well in law school without ever having read a case or studied how courts work. However, most students should not assume they can “learn it when they get there” and do well enough to graduate from law school with a high class rank. Making this assumption can significantly impair their ability to get a job—or the job they want—after graduation.
Most prelaw students have done relatively well in their college courses. The majority of Touro’s applicants have GPAs of 3.5 or above. However, there are two main reasons why even the best undergraduate students may have difficulty duplicating such success in law school. First, most law schools grade on a curve, which means that in classes with smart students A-level work may result in grades of B or C. Second, many law school grades are based almost entirely on one long exam given at the end of the semester. Students accustomed to steady work throughout the semester will not always flourish when facing the pressure of an exam that will entirely determine the student's grade.
In order to improve their chances of success in law school, prelaw students can choose courses that will give them the skills possessed by top-ranked law students, which are identified below. Wise students will take the time to develop these skills while they are undergraduates so that they will be ready to excel on their first day in law school.
1. The ability to critically read judicial opinions
Most law school assignments involve reading and discussing excerpts from appellate cases, a type of reading that is assigned in very few undergraduate classes. Entering law students who are familiar with reading and discussing cases will find it easier to adjust to their new workload.
Learning to read law cases is not easy, and students cannot expect to become experts by reading two or three dozen Supreme Court cases while in college. However, taking classes in which judicial opinions are read allows prelaw students to begin to discern the patterns of how opinions are written, how existing law is characterized, and how received law can be modified when it is applied to the facts. When judicial opinions are discussed in undergraduate classes, students gain an opportunity to develop case-reading skills that will help them succeed in law school. This experience can also help them to decide if they really want to attend law school, where they will read numerous cases each week for three years.
Courses that require students to read cases: POL 207 (Introduction to American Law), POL 246 (Judicial Politics), POL 309 (Civil Rights and Civil Liberties), POL 310 (The Supreme Court and the Constitution), POL 311 (Legal Principles).
2. The ability to solve legal problems
Solving legal problems is different from solving problems in mathematics or sciences. Effective lawyering requires students to identify the legal issues presented, determine what the existing law provides, and then predict how courts or government agencies would apply the law to specific fact patterns. In making these predictions, lawyers must often take into account social and political considerations in addition to the specific language of relevant laws or regulations.
Interpreting judicial opinions and applying them to factual problems requires different skills than addressing problems in many other academic fields. Undergraduates are taught to seek answers by approaching problems with an open mind, fairly evaluating the evidence according to accepted criteria of accuracy, and reaching the conclusion that seems most correct. In contrast, law students are taught that many contested legal issues have no right answer, and that the answer generated often varies with the interpretive method that is chosen. This shift in perspective often proves challenging to undergraduates who are used to seeking out “the answer.”
Prelaw students interested in learning how to address legal problems will benefit from taking courses such as POL 207 (Introduction to American Law), POL 246 (Judicial Politics), POL 309 (Civil Rights and Civil Liberties), and POL 310 (The Supreme Court and the Constitution).
3. The ability to effectively reason and argue in writing
While law schools do not require specific writing courses, they assume that entering students have developed the ability to make and criticize arguments in writing. Law school writing programs usually leave little opportunity for students who are deficient in this skill to catch up with their peers. Students who did not develop good writing skills as undergraduates will find law school very difficult and time-consuming, and are likely to receive poor grades.
Political science courses do not attempt to teach basic writing skills, which is the goal of the two composition courses every Touro undergraduate is required to take. Instead, political science courses assist students in focusing their writing on critical analysis of evidence and arguments. In almost every course offered by the department, students have the opportunity to submit multiple drafts of their papers in order to benefit from professors’ comments. In almost every course, students will be assessed through essay or issue-spotting questions that are more similar to law school examinations than the multiple choice or short-answer tests that are given in some other departments.
Students can also benefit from taking political science courses that introduce them to forms of writing that are specific to law school. These include case briefs, legal memoranda, and judicial opinions. Gaining experience in this type of writing will aid students when they undertake similar assignments in law school. Courses that assign this type of writing include POL 207 (Introduction to American Law), POL 246 (Judicial Politics), POL 309 (Civil Rights and Civil Liberties), POL 310 (The Supreme Court and the Constitution), and POL 311 (Legal Principles).
4. The ability to engage in effective oral advocacy
The American Bar Association urges undergraduates to develop the “ability to speak clearly and persuasively” by “engaging in debate, making formal presentations in class, or speaking before groups.” This will help develop advocacy skills that are important to success in law school as well as the legal profession. Lawyers need to be able to speak effectively whether they are arguing before judges, making presentations to clients, or answering questions from the press.
Touro College requires all undergraduates to take a public speaking course, but the focus of this basic course is on prepared speeches. Success in law school requires students to demonstrate skill in extemporaneous argument and responding to challenging questions. The small size of political science courses allows students to develop oral advocacy skills during class discussions and occasional presentations. Students who want experience in more formal advocacy exercises should consider taking POL 207 (Introduction to American Law), POL 309 (Civil Rights and Civil Liberties), or POL 310 (The Supreme Court and the Constitution).