Prelaw at Pitt-Johnstown

This internet page  is designed to discuss some of the most pressing questions asked by entering freshmen and
their parents, and after that by college sophomores and juniors, when they begin to consider undergraduate
preparation appropriate to senior-year application for law school admission.

Prelaw is not an academic major

First and foremost, prelaw is not a field of study or an academic discipline, but rather a direction or an aspiration - I want to be a lawyer (or something to that effect). In the broadest terms, the American Bar Association does not recognize specific courses or a specific undergraduate major as peculiarly or appropriately 'prelaw.'  However, as many colleges and universities and most high school guidance counselors continue use the term prelaw when exposing students to various academic and career directions, some clarification of the term is in order.

Prelaw is most appropriately used as an indication of a planned career direction.  It says in effect I hope to attend law school after I have completed my undergraduate degree' and I want to direct my course of undergraduate study to preparing for that by emphasizing verbal, written, and analytical skills.  Some students and their parents understand the term prelaw to refer to a specific pre-professional curriculum, similar to pre-medicine, or pre-pharmacy.  However, there are few parallels with these more traditional pre-professional types of programs, which have an established (and required) sequence of science-based 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, law schools differ quite markedly from schools of medicine.  The American Bar Association is careful to stipulate that law schools expect no set curriculum of undergraduate study and prefer no particular major.  Students typically enter the study of law from a wide variety of undergraduate fields, and while most seem to major in one of the social sciences - political science and history are natural choices - many come from the humanities (literature, communications, languages, philosophy, etc.), the natural sciences (psychology, biology, geology, mathematics, etc.), and business.  Some enter law school after completing secondary education teacher certification; some may enter after an undergraduate degree in engineering.

In fact, law schools encourage  undergraduates to pursue diverse courses of study in their undergraduate career because the study and practice of law involves so many dimensions of society, and the more understanding the undergraduate brings to the study of law, the better. Study in a combination of fields, dual majors, completion of a minor or a certificate program, and any form of study abroad experience would therefore give breadth to a student's undergraduate training.

Therefore the term prelaw is a pre-professional designation and prescribes no set curriculum.  Because it is not considered an academic major, all undergraduates who consider themselves prelaw will eventually choose  a course of  study (their major) that suits their interests and abilities, such as political science, economics, history, English 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 the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and first-year law courses.

Why do you want to go to law school?

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.  Some are attracted by the status of having a law degree, or simply being able to gain admission to law school.  Others may assume 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 parallel career, such as in business or elected political office.  And some are attracted by the intellectual intrigue of the law, a fascination with the legal maze and language that often leaves many of us completely baffled.

But let's face it - law school is basically three additional years of postgraduate schooling 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 anecdotal accounts have shown in the last couple of years.  Oftentimes, those in the legal profession are involved in what can only be portrayed as legal research, with title searches, wills, and bill collection, school district debt structure, and local government ordinances regarding sewer lines and employee contracts,  a far cry from the U.S. Supreme Court or televised portrayals of the legal profession (from "Law and Order" to "Suits").  In practice, it can be far from lucrative unless you get attached to and move up within a large law firm (and here there is stiff competition), or find a geographical and specialized niche of practice. And to be candid, law school is expensive, upwards from $125,000 not counting living expenses like room and board. Why law school? That's a serious question, one to be seriously considered.

It may be surprising to learn that many law degree holders never take the bar exam and never practice law but instead move into non-legal careers, because either positions in law are scarce, or more to the point their interests have changed.  This is even more the situation since the economic recession of 2008, after which many law firms and legal departments of corporations downsized dramatically, glutting the legal marketplace with a large number of unemployed mid-career and early-career lawyers. Consequently portrayals of the professional market for new law school graduates have ranged from very competitive to very pessimistic. What is the prognosis now, some eight years later? It seems that very competitive is the watchword, and law school students are advised to augment their general preparation with specific skills sets, externships, and areas of focus. Those who graduate with a law degree and are 'ready-to-go', i.e. have a bundle of skills already developed and documented, are vastly preferred over those who have a general law degree and are 'ready-to-train' -- downsizing or lean law firms do not have the time, the resources, or the inclination to train (or apprentice) new lawyers as they they did before. An eye-opening survey of what practicing lawyers consider the necessary skills and competencies for new law school graduates can be found here and includes personal and professional traits as well as legal knowledge.

Students who as undergraduates are fascinated by legal complexities of case arguments may become dulled by the basic legal formulas in first-year law school, and many who have gone to law school testify they found more intellectual stimulation in their application after passing the bar and entering a particular field of litigation than in law school classes themselves - except perhaps third year specialty courses taken out of interest. First and foremost, law is a profession and a vocation.  It primarily teaches you how to do legal research in various fields, which is the bread-and-butter of most legal practices. It also emphasizes methods and approaches in a fairly conventional course of academic study, involving a lot of sheer dog-work. As stated before, most attorneys will admit that law school is far less interesting than the practice of law.

As an undergraduate, you should consider whether or not you are interested in law school no sooner than in your  junior  year.  Too often, entering freshmen declare they are prelaw without much familiarity with the profession or the notion of the law, and our experience has been that a majority of prelaw entering freshmen change their direction of study and their major by the end of their sophomore year.  That's OK - sorting out one's interests and career options is a common aspect of undergraduate education. Furthermore, a number of graduating seniors applying to law schools originally had intended (as an entering freshman) to pursue a different career direction. It is not unusual for graduates with a Masters degree in an academic field to shift career direction and then enter law school.

An undergraduate liberal arts college like Pitt-Johnstown provides a wide range of opportunities and directions for intellectual pursuit and academic curiosity, and freshmen should not lock themselves into a single career direction before they walk into their first classes.  In many ways, college-level study in a particular field - such as history or biology or English literature - is far different and more challenging than in high school, and requires a disciplined focus and an academic interest to navigate a chosen major without the added burden of a pre-selected career direction.  So, why law school?  That is a more complex 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 experiencing college study in various fields.  Too often, the question is resolved too early - aspiration to a professional career is fine, just take your time finding out which direction is for you.

What do you need to prepare for first-year law school?

A undergraduate prelaw program is best constructed as a broad and diverse course of study in the liberal arts and sciences, emphasizing exposure to a range of academic disciplines, analytical approaches, and modes of expression.  Because the specific profession of law is taught in law school, the undergraduate program need not and should not include courses in facets of the law, unless one is exploring how the law relates to other aspects of society (e.g. Media and the Law, Criminology, Forensic Science, etc.).  Where one goes to undergraduate school (this college versus that college) or what he/she majors in (history versus English literature) becomes less important.

The most successful law school applicants 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 prelaw students major in political science; it is simply a matter of circumstance and interest that many prelaw undergraduates are also interested in politics, public policy, or the political process, and tend to take courses in those areas.

Your undergraduate study can, in this light, be seen as preparation for graduate study (in this case, graduate study in law) and as such it should emphasize the two critical skills - analytical thinking and communication. It is a relatively simple matter to seek out courses of study that come easiest, and yield the best grades. Taking one course in logic and one course in English composition is not sufficient preparation for law school.  Language skills are developed through reading and writing in a meticulous and continuous manner; avoidance of undergraduate courses emphasizing reading and communications skills may boost one's grade average 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 one is born with.  In simple terms, students who fill their undergraduate curriculum with easy and undemanding courses tend to cheat themselves in the long run.

Undergraduates and their parents sometimes assume that high achievement levels in high school automatically signal sufficient intellectual and analytical level of ability to enter graduate training in the law. This view tends to see a student's undergraduate career is a mere ‘holding action' while waiting to enter law school.  Students who coast through their undergraduate careers - seeking out only the courses of least resistance, classes with the least reading, the easiest testing, or require no lengthy research papers - may accumulate high grades but very little intellectual development beyond that with which they graduated from high school several years before. That is it not only an ill-considered way of preparing for law school, worse yet it squanders the opportunities an undergraduate career provides to pursue interests and gain a broad education.

The Pitt-Johnstown record in law school admissions, and beyond

The record of Pitt-Johnstown in placing graduates in law schools is very good.  Generally speaking, students who have appropriate  grades and competitive LSAT scores are offered admission, often to more than one law school. Pitt-Johnstown graduates frequently gain admission to and graduate from the best law schools in the Mid-Atlantic region (Pittsburgh, Dickinson/Penn State, Duquesne, Case Western, Widener) and over the past four decades have selectively gained admission to law schools in the top tier (Harvard, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Texas, Wake Forest). Pitt-Johnstown students are competitive with undergraduates around the country for law school admissions, and their LSAT scores indicate their preparation at the undergraduate level is quite adequate.

To be completely honest, the Pitt-Johnstown record also indicates a small percentage of graduates who have been rejected by all law schools to which they applied.  This occurs because either the student has weak credentials (academic record or LSAT score) or made an ill-considered choice of schools (applying only to law schools for which there was only a marginal chance of admission).  As a rule, mid-range law schools (so-called 'Second 50') require a minimum overall grade average (GPA) of 3.3, somewhere between a B and B+, and a LSAT score in the 50th percentile or higher; while more competitive law schools look for students at higher ranges than that. In most cases, students who persist in applying to law schools even though their grade average is below 3.0 and/or their LSAT is below the 40th percentile are turned down. There are of course exceptions, with less competitive  (second 100) law schools considering and sometimes accepting those students.  Applicants with high grades and a low LSAT score, or a high LSAT score and low grades, present unusual cases, and as a rule, law school admissions committees are more likely to accept (on the margin) the higher LSAT student than the higher GPA student.

In short, the record indicates 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, the Pitt-Johnstown curriculum presents an opportunity to prepare for the study of law; it does not provide a guarantee of law school admission.

Finally, given the dire forecasts for the legal profession coming from all directions (see commentary below), a word of caution is appropriate. On the whole, law schools do a good job in preparing students for the practice of law, from general concepts to particular applications. While many first-year courses are basic (property, torts, contracts, civil procedure, legal writing, etc.), students then have the opportunity to expand their familiarity and expertise on one or more of those areas by their course selection in their second and third year. This becomes almost a matter of taste - if you like contracts, do contracts! But career mobility does enter into the calculation - mobility within the law may be expanded by being a generalist (for those seeking local practice) while for those seeking a specialized practice, specialized training, writing, internships, etc. will expand one's mobility within a legal niche. Be aware however that one can aim to develop expertise in a 'hot field' (in recent years that has been entertainment law and intellectual property) only to find the market saturated by the time one emerges from law school. What does this mean for you? It means your choice of law school might be predicated on the range of opportunities in a range of legal fields offered in its curriculum. Remember, law school is what it is - professional training for practice. That's what it does. Is there a job out there waiting for you? Who knows? Is it law-related or one that assumes legal training? Maybe. Sometimes generalized legal training ends up being the stepping-stone to a career outside legal practice, e.g. in business or politics, or nonprofit administration, such as in health care. A recent study, for example, found that about a quarter of law graduates who passed the bar never went into legal practice. One thing has been apparent from Pitt-Johnstown graduates who have gone on to complete their J.D. (juris doctor) and enter practice - they followed their interests. They were interested in law "eyes wide open" and went to law school, finished, passed the bar, and went into practice, usually within the first year. Some may have subsequently changed career direction, e.g. out of law into business in some cases, and out of law into academe in others, but they followed their interests and it worked out.

Commentary on the legal marketplace

What’s going on out there?

One of the reverberations from the recent economic recession was a rather precipitous drop in employment in law firms, from the largest mega-firms to medium-sized firms in large cities, to even smaller firms working in non-metropolitan cities and towns. A large number of practicing mid-career lawyers -- seasoned associates in their thirties, forties and even early fifties who were not yet corporate partners and the highest paid cohort within firms not having any capital investment in them -- were thrown into the marketplace within a short time pan. Some responded by starting their own firms or forming partnerships, others sought lower-level and lower-paying positions in smaller firms, many of which were not hiring, still others attempted to move into governmental positions. For firms that were still hiring, newer J.D.s, while less experienced, were far cheaper than the many available mid-career attorneys.

Paralleling that was a shrinkage in the market for certified paralegals, those with postgraduate training from the range of programs that emerged some thirty years ago to provide law firms with lower level skills and credentials to do basic legal research (grunt work). As the market for new law recruits became more and more competitive, law firms found they could hire new J.D.s at lower scale and, as long as the prospects for entry-level positions remained tight, new J.D.s often took those positions, at least temporarily, to be employed in the profession. And the nature of legal work is also changing, e.g. with the emergence of agencies specializing in specific aspects of legal work to which legal firms could ‘job-out’ work on a specialty basis, and it is not unusual for new J.D.s to find temporary employment in such agencies. Also developing is the state licensing of legal technicians to provide a limited scale of legal advice and assistance to clients who cannot afford legal counsel, estimated to be as high as 90% of those needing legal advice.

Sensing the increased competition for entry level positions, and that law firms no longer would commit to traditional in-house apprenticeship training of new JDs, law schools began to diversify their curricula to emphasize ‘ground-level skills’ so graduates were in effect ‘ready-to-go’ as hirelings. Along with this came an emphasis on internships, externships, clinics, and other forms of ‘real world’ practical experience to bolster resumes for those entering in a profession that no longer seemed willing to accept simply ‘book-learned, theoretical lawyers’ who required months if not years of supervision to be productive. Many law schools have developed practitioner tracks – second and third year courses, often leading to some form of certification in a specialization of practice, such as governmental or non-profit.

How is that reflected in law school admissions?

The competition among law schools for qualified freshman law students likewise became more intense, as rumors of a shrinking market (‘no jobs’) or a market with less-interesting and more mundane tasks caused a very noticeable five-year decline in the number of college students taking the LSAT and applying to law school, a trend that continued through 2015. During this period, law schools already committed to a certain number of seats in their freshman class were under greater pressure to recruit from a shrinking pool and to retain matriculates into their second and third year. Many of them tempered their formula-based admissions policy based on LSAT and GPA and gave greater consideration to a wider range of qualifications. Among the lesser competitive schools, this has lowered the LSAT profile for entering freshman classes, meaning more schools have been willing to accept applicants with LSAT scores in the 140s. With a shallower pool of potential applicants from which to choose, some schools have tried to enlarge their freshman classes, sometimes twofold. Some at the least competitive end of the scale have fared less well and seen real drops in enrollment over a period of years, forcing them to lay off faculty and close extension campuses. Ironically, the same market saw a spurt in enrollments in the small number of for-profit law schools, which were far less competitive for admission and fairly expensive.

To lure potential applicants, law schools not only emphasized the diversification of their curriculum (the ‘preparedness’ of their graduates for legal practice) but also trumpeted their placement of graduates, focusing less on the usual one or two stars and more on their broader placement rates -- the percentage of their graduates who passed the bar and secured law-related jobs, in positions requiring J.D.-level skills, within a certain time frame, such as within nine-months of graduation. A well-publicized spillover of this has been some highly exaggerated placement rate reporting, raising issues such as what is ‘law-related work,’ what is ‘full-time employment,’ and what kinds of work actually requires J.D.-level skills. There were also exaggerated reputational surveys, using selective measures to show that little-known schools were actually considered of higher reputation or better placement than perhaps Harvard or Yale. All of this illustrates that law school applicants are more and more concerned about their potential employability after graduation from this or that law school.

Is there a 'crisis in legal education' ?

Commentary in the mainstream media and on legal blogs continues to scrutinize trends in market demand for lawyers. As law schools continue to admit more students and charge higher levels of tuition, paid for by higher levels of accumulated (often government-guaranteed) student debt, the question arises whether they are churning out J.D.s at a far higher rate than the shrunken market might warrant? And if so, do law schools have a societal obligation to ‘scale back’ their numbers of graduates to match the current demand level, or will market forces make that inevitable? One of those market forces would be chronic unemployment among qualified lawyers, many of whom carrying student loan debt. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times decried a 57% employment rate among recent law graduates with an average indebtedness of $88-127,000 accumulated over three years. With over 70% of their revenues coming from tuition, law schools are peculiarly dependent on full enrollment in their entering freshman classes, and yet job prospects for their graduates on aggregate seem to be dire. That same Times piece expressed astonishment that for-profit law schools, with doubled class sizes and producing huge per graduate indebtedness, seemed to be thriving even though their graduates reportedly produced weak passage rates on bar exams. This, the author claimed, was the crisis in legal education.

So what exactly might be the crisis? Is it a crisis in quality or quantity? On a practical level, it is argued that law schools need to offer more real-world skills and experience, better debt counseling and disclosure about student loan programs, should ‘come clean’ about their actual costs, and more carefully and honestly advertise the placement of their graduates. This amounts to making college seniors more knowledgeable consumers of a law education, and the volatility of the recruiting market has pushed all schools in those directions. But even with all the information about these issues swirling around in a fairly pessimistic atmosphere, over 30,000 college graduates still take the LSAT and occupy seats in law school classes in schools ranging from the very top to those languishing in the far less prestigious ‘second-100.’

As reported in the legal blogs a few schools have been sued by unemployed graduates for consumer fraud, or at least misrepresentation and negligence, in advertising or reporting (to U.S. News and World Report which publishes widely-publicized law school rankings) exaggerated reputations or graduate placements and thereby inducing matriculation by unsuspecting freshmen. Respondents and others have argued that the most blatant and outrageous claims would not be considered credible by any reasonable person - so let the buyer beware! But underlying those cases is a more basic issue -- whether law schools are offering a product for which there is a diminishing yield on what has become a significant investment, or put another way, are law schools meeting their public responsibilities to the marketplace, or to individual students?  On the most elementary level, one can start with whether a law program offered is solid and reputable, is the instruction skilled and knowledgeable, is the sequence of learning appropriate, and does a graduate walk out with a bona fide law degree that advertised exactly what it was – three years of sequenced training - and adequately prepared for the bar exam? If the answer is yes (as it would be for virtually all accredited law schools), then a second, related issue comes to the fore -- whether the graduate is able to gain employment in law within the first year of graduation that suits his interests and locational preferences? That, candidly, is where the crisis lies, irrespective of the cost of law school and how students pay for it.

Recent placement data reflect both positive and negative trends. For the class of 2015, the employment rate one year out was over 86%, two-thirds in positions requiring bar passage. That's about 5% lower than the market in 2010 before the economic recession really hit law school enrollments, but the number of graduates (now at about 40,000 per year) was also down 10% over that period, indicating (perhaps) that the supply market was adjusting somewhat. The squeeze, as implied above, has been greatest on the least competitive nonprofit and on all of the for-profit law schools, whose enrollments dropped by as much as two-thirds, whose aggregate three-year cost (mostly on guaranteed student loans) is high, and whose bar passage rates and employment rates are exceedingly low. One way to research these trends, school-by-school, is but checking on Law School Transparency (LST), an online oversight reporting site.

Let's grant that law schools by-and-large produce a bona fide curriculum-based product. Some are better at it than others, some have more prestigious instructors or higher rates of success in placing graduates in better positions. Some also offer a range of advanced or specialized course work and practical training in one or more legal subfields of practice, such as environmental law, media/communications law, or intellectual property. Placement of graduates  may or may not be simply a matter of a law school's reputation, making schools with the highest reputations the most attractive destination (at a higher cost). But on the whole, a law degree is a law degree -- all students complete basic courses in torts, and civil procedure, and property, and legal writing. Whether they go into criminal law or intellectual property after that is a matter of choice (and taste), some influenced by what they anticipate is the ‘hot market’ field. Others remain essentially generalists and move into a market niche through practice after graduation, often quite accidentally. Clearly, the marketplace for entry-level lawyers is intensely competitive, perhaps more so if one is geographically tied by circumstance or preference. But if the law degree advertises its product accurately; what has changed is the legal market and the nature of legal work. This is the heart of the matter. For years, the legal blogs (such as have been examining and debating how the profession has changed and what it will look like in the future -- it might be a good idea to check them out.

Prelaw advising

In most cases, advice on law school application or on which schools might be a best fit need not be to be initiated until the student's  junior year, by which time a student can have already accessed law school catalogs, information packages, materials on law careers, and full information on LSATs  via LSAC online. Looking for the best fit among those schools that might offer admission is a task best addressed after one has taken the LSAT and has a score in hand, usually after the June or October testing periods. Also linked to this site is information on the application process in a document entitled  Applying to Law School.

August 2017