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Pre-Law: Where to Begin

Learn About Law School and Careers in Law
Law school generally requires three years of full-time study. Law schools teach students how to read, analyze, write and argue about the law. Students mainly read appellate cases, which discuss the merits and applications of the law. Many law school professors do not simply lecture, but ask students to analyze and argue. Students are expected to be articulate advocates for their positions. Grades are usually based on a single, final examination that is also usually an essay exam. Some law schools rank all of their students, some (such as the University of Iowa College of Law) rank the top third and some no longer rank students.

The best way to learn what lawyers do is to talk to lawyers in varied careers: private firms, public defenders, government and business. Have family or friends refer you to lawyers and schedule informational interviews. Ask what skills are needed to practice law, what a lawyer's typical day is like and what courses in college will best prepare you for law school. Call The University of Iowa Alumni Association's Career Information Network (335-3301) for names and phone numbers of lawyers who will discuss their careers with students. This program can arrange externships through which you can "work" with a lawyer for a week.

Law Services hosts a Law School Forum in Chicago each Fall. Representatives of almost all law schools attend and meet informally with people interested in applying to law school. There is a chapter of the national law fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta, at The University of Iowa that is open to all undergraduates and offers informational programs and organizes social activities. Your pre-law adviser can provide you with further information (also, see the link at the bottom of the previous page).

The Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, available in the reference section of the Law Library, describes the skills necessary to be a lawyer and how to plan your curriculum to attain these skills. Lawyers must be able to use references and do research on almost any topic, read large amounts of material, analyze the issues involved, understand the various points of view which provide different answers, and synthesize all the arguments that support their client's position. Lawyers must write and speak concisely, informatively, and persuasively, and must have good problem-solving, negotiating and counseling skills to work effectively with a wide range of clients.

Law School Admissions

Law school admission is a competitive process. Only the best students, with strong analytical reasoning skills, are admitted. The four major criteria are: 1) GPA and level of difficulty of course work, 2) Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score, 3) your personal statement and, although less important than the former three, 4) references.

1) As a pre-law student, your first concern is to do well in your undergraduate courses. To have a good chance at admission to law school you will need a GPA above 3.00, but for highly selective national schools it usually takes a substantially higher GPA. The median undergraduate GPA of students entering The University of Iowa College of Law (ranked 18th in the nation by US News and World Report) in March 2002 was 3.6. The Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, published by the Law School Admission Council, also gives detailed information about the GPAs and LSAT scores for applicants and admitted students to most U.S. law schools. When you apply to law school, a summary of your grades is prepared by the Law School Data Assembly Service which averages grades for any courses taken more than once. A strong GPA is important, but this does not mean you should take "easy" courses.

2) The LSAT measures skills essential for success in law school: the reading and comprehension of complex texts, the organization of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences, the ability to reason critically, and the analysis of the reasoning of others. The test does not require any specific, memorized knowledge; all the information necessary to answer the questions is in the test itself. Scores range from 120-180. For the Fall 2001 entering class, The University of Iowa College of Law reported a median score of 159, which is within the top 20th percentile. Sample tests are available from your pre-law adviser, in bookstores, the Law Library, from Law Services and from the commercial LSAT preparation programs.

3) Most applications request a personal statement. Committees read this essay to evaluate you as a unique person and to determine what makes you different from all other students with a 3.46 GPA, a 161 LSAT score and three good references. You are not expected to prove how much you know about the law in your personal statement; you are expected to "tell your story," that is, to discuss the experiences, in and out of school, that have shaped you and led you to seek a career in law. It is important that you seek advice and assistance from a faculty member or an adviser when you write your statement.

4) Two or three letters of reference may be required. Letters of reference may be helpful if written by a professor who knows a student well, but students should not seek letters from faculty who do not know them and their work well, even if they did get an "A" in the professor's class. Letters from faculty are preferred, but one letter from a significant employment or internship experience, especially if law related, is acceptable. Start getting to know faculty as soon as possible. One of the best ways to do so is to take a second, or even a third class, from a single professor. Talk to your pre-law adviser about references.

Suggestions on Course Selection

Once you've learned which skills will enable you to succeed in law, you can select courses. Course descriptions and syllabi, instructors and faculty advisors can help you assess major courses and electives likely to teach you these skills. Choose electives (or a minor, or a second major) which will teach you the skills not emphasized by your major. The following list will help you begin your own research.

Reading Skills - Courses with heavy reading and tests that require detailed comprehension will build vocabulary and reading skills. LSAT passages and legal research utilize vocabulary and reading skills from a variety of academic disciplines. To learn how to read appellate cases, consider American Constitutional Law (30:116). For an introduction to legal terminology and the structure of the American judicial system, consider The Judicial Process (30:153). Consider also, the College of Business course Introduction to Law (6J:47). Note that these are upper level courses. They are not for first-year students and they may or may not be appropriate for you, regardless of your level. Consult your adviser. To learn the roots of legal terminology, consider Word Power: Building English Vocabulary (8N:50).

Research Skills - Lawyers need to know how to research information from a wide range of disciplines. Choose courses that require you to do library research for papers and learn how to use the University Library.

Writing Skills - Rhetoric classes provide opportunities to improve writing skills by trying a variety of styles. Beyond this you need to seek courses that require papers and give you feedback on the style of a specific discipline. Examples include Non-fiction Writing (8N:80) in English, History department colloquium courses, and any upper level courses in the social sciences or humanities.

Speaking Skills - Beyond Rhetoric, you might select courses in Communication Studies that emphasize public speaking, courses in Theater such as Basic Acting, or advanced courses that require oral presentations and give feedback on communication skills.

Reasoning And Problem-Solving Skills - If you can do math, continue with math courses in your first year at the University. The LSAT does not test math skills, but the analytical reasoning section uses the same thinking processes and admissions committees tend to look favorably on evidence of the ability to do well in mathematics through at least a pre-calculus course. Reasoning courses such as Principles of Reasoning (26:36) and Language and Formal Reasoning (103:13) will also develop these skills. Courses that require you to design arguments and solve problems by developing formulas or models will improve these skills. Consider the Communication Studies course Theory and Practice of Argument (36:17); this course gives roughly equal attention to the critical analysis and formal construction of arguments, balancing theory with practice. Many other courses and disciplines will also help students develop their reasoning and problem-solving skills. Many science and engineering courses provide excellent training in reasoning and problem-solving.

Analyzing Arguments - Select courses that require you to analyze arguments from several points of view, rather than those that focus on understanding or memorizing only one viewpoint. The content or discipline is not as important as the analytical process itself.

The Pre-Law Committee of the American Bar Association suggests some types of knowledge which are most useful for law school, including an understanding of history, particularly American history, political thought and theory, and the contemporary American political system, ethical theory and theories of justice, economics, pre-calculus math and analysis of financial data, human behavior and social interaction, and diverse cultures within and beyond the United States.

Prelaw Advising

The pre-law "major" code means you are assigned a pre-law adviser at the Academic Advising center. Your adviser will keep you updated on law school admission criteria and the application process, but you will need to make appointments as appropriate and go see your adviser.

When you have a faculty adviser in your major, they will help you select courses, discuss career options in the field, give you your registration form and sign drop/add forms. You can keep your pre-law adviser as a "second" adviser and will receive a letter each semester inviting you to schedule a planning appointment in October or February. A second adviser for pre-law does not sign registrations or drop/add forms and will have the most time for lengthy discussions of pre-law issues outside of the early registration periods in November/December and April/May.

When to take the LSAT

The LSAT is administered four times a year, in early June, October, December and February. Most applicants should plan to take the LSAT in June of the year prior to the year in which one plans to seek admission, i.e., in June of 2008 if you plan to start law school in the Fall of 2009. Most law schools use a "rolling admissions" process that begins evaluating applications in late October or early November. While it is possible to take the LSAT in October and still apply in a timely fashion, it takes approximately three weeks for the scores to be reported. If the test taker happens to be ill when the test is administered in October or some other unplanned event interferes it may jeopardize the application for that year. Therefore, it is best to take the test in June and save the October date as a backup.

When to Begin the Application Process

Your pre-law adviser receives current copies of the LSAT/LSDAS Registration and Information Books in mid-March. You may pick up a copy of this book in March of the year prior to which you wish to begin law school (e.g., March of 2008 if you wish to apply to begin law school in August of 2009).


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