View From the Classroom: Pre-law education?

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Law school famously does not require a pre-law background.  Unlike other professional and graduate schools, law school proudly accepts, indeed thrives upon, students of all backgrounds.  We happily take all overachieving comers, whatever their prior field of study, on the theory that sheer smarts in any subject can translate into success at law school.

But why is law school different than, say, medical school?  There may be several reasons.  Maybe the law is less specialized and therefore requires less pre-training.  Maybe it’s fundamentally more accessible to thinkers of all types and therefore can accommodate students with a wider range of educational backgrounds.  Or maybe law school benefits more from intellectual diversity in classroom—that diverse thinking helps us teach and learn the law.

There’s surely some truth to each of these.  Law school is different.  It’s probably less technical and specialized than other professional programs.  It’s probably more liberal and accessible, too.  And its basic social nature—relying, as it uniquely does, on social interactions not just to learn material but also to socially construct the subject—undoubtedly benefits from diverse thinking.

Still, we might learn something from the pre-educational requirements of other disciplines.  After all, there are some basic building-blocks of American law that many of our students don’t know before coming to law school.  Some of these are easy: the basic structure of American courts; the common law method; and basic legal reasoning.  But some are tougher or more nuanced: our legal, social, and political histories; our politics; and our bedrock values—things like due process—that drive so much of our law.  Whether easy or hard, these are topics that we have to squeeze into the law school curriculum (often in orientation), or hope that our students pick up along the way.  Yet they are also topics that we could easily require in the form of some prescribed pre-law course of study.

Pre-law requirements could help ensure that our students come to law school with baseline knowledge—and help ensure that we could assume that baseline knowledge as we work with both beginning and upper-level students.  They could also give us a jump-start on legal education, saving time and space in the curriculum for more advanced study.  Finally, and most importantly, they would help move us away from a view of the law as mere logic (that anyone with raw, undifferentiated smarts can master) and toward a view of the law as experience, history, politics, sociology, values, and all else that makes up our rich and complex field.

Our students need not be pre-law majors; that approach swings much too far the other way.  But some basic and modest requirements for our applicants from all disciplines could bring great benefits.  And we could achieve these without trading on—but instead even enhancing—our justifiably cherished traditions of openness and intellectual diversity.

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