Navigating Law School: Top Undergraduate Degrees For Lawyers

A man who has a law degree is in a dark suite standing in courtroom talking to a jury

Earning a Law Degree can be a great way to embark on a fulfilling and rewarding career. The legal field is an honorable profession that offers a variety of challenges and opportunities for growth, and it typically provides attractive compensation. As a result, pursuing a law degree may be an appealing career and academic path for individuals who are interested in justice, advocacy, and problem-solving. While many students aspire to become lawyers when they enter college, they may not have a clear understanding of what the path to becoming a lawyer entails.

I often hear students say they are going to major in pre-law in college and that’s what they are going to get their bachelor’s degree in. However, in the US, “pre-law” is not a major or something you can get a bachelor’s degree in. There are no specific prerequisite classes for a law degree. In order to become a lawyer in the United States, you must first complete a bachelor’s degree in any major, and then go on to graduate school to earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

What Is The Difference Between An Attorney And A Lawyer

Before delving into the best undergraduate degrees for law school applications, let’s clarify the distinction between attorneys and lawyers. These terms are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference. While all attorneys are lawyers, not all lawyers are attorneys.

An attorney is a licensed legal professional who has completed law school, passed the bar exam in a particular jurisdiction, and met specific ethical standards. Attorneys are authorized to represent clients in court, provide legal advice, and draft legal documents.

A lawyer, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses anyone who has studied law or legal principles. In essence, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. The term “attorney” carries a more specific legal connotation and signifies the authority to practice law in a particular jurisdiction

Every student who graduates from law school is a lawyer. An attorney is a lawyer who has passed the state bar exam in the state where they are practicing law and has been admitted to the bar. That means they can legally represent clients and practice law in court. So the difference is, a lawyer has graduated from law school and can give legal advice but they can not practice law as an attorney in the courtroom because they have not passed the bar exam, only an attorney can do that.

What Is A Juris Doctorate Degree

A Juris Doctorate degree often referred to as a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Doctor of Jurisprudence, is the standard degree obtained to be a practicing lawyer in the United States. To enroll in a J.D. program, you must have completed and obtained a bachelor’s degree, but you do not need a master’s degree. J.D. programs typically take three years to complete and involve rigorous coursework in legal theory, practice, and ethics. Upon completion, students are eligible to take the bar exam, a standardized test that assesses their knowledge of the law and their ability to apply it to legal problems. I will explain the bar examination more later on in the article.

What Are The Best Bachelor’s Degrees For Getting A J.D.

We have already established that a bachelor’s degree is a requirement for a Juris Doctor program, but what is the best bachelor’s degree? This is a question I get a lot. There is no specific bachelor’s degree that is required to be accepted into a Juris Doctorate program. However, there are certain majors that can best prepare you for a rigorous law degree.

It’s helpful if you know what type of lawyer you want to be, such as a Criminal Lawyer, Family Lawyer, or Financial/Corporate Lawyer. You can choose a bachelor’s degree that supports the type of lawyer you want to be. For example, a criminal lawyer would benefit from a Criminal Justice major while a family lawyer would benefit from a Psychology major.

Below are the 8 best undergraduate majors if you are considering continuing your education to a J.D. degree.

1. Political Science

Political science is a popular undergraduate major for students aspiring to attend law school. This popularity stems from its focus on the judicial system, government, and political behavior, providing a solid foundation for legal studies. Political science students gain a comprehensive understanding of the nation’s legal systems, the legislative process, and the interplay between law and politics. This exposure to the legal framework and political intricacies prepares students for the rigors of law school and the demands of legal practice.

2. English

I recommend English as a great major for aspiring lawyers, even though I put it on my list of The Worst College Majors. An English major is typically going to be writing and reading intensive and requires research. Therefore, an English major can be extremely beneficial to strengthen your reading, writing, and researching skills while in your undergraduate program.

English majors develop strong analytical and critical thinking skills. These are essential for lawyers who must evaluate complex legal issues, construct persuasive arguments, and communicate effectively in both written and oral forms. The emphasis on research and writing in an English major program is important. It prepares students to navigate the vast amount of legal information and effectively present their findings in legal documents and court proceedings.

Moreover, English majors gain a deep understanding of language, grammar, and style. These are crucial for crafting clear, concise, and persuasive legal communications. They also learn to effectively structure arguments, identify logical fallacies, and analyze texts with a critical eye. All of these skills are highly valued in the legal profession.

3. Communications

Communications is an excellent undergraduate choice for aspiring lawyers, providing a strong foundation in reading, writing, researching, and public speaking. These are essential skills for legal success. A communications major offers a diverse range of career options. But for those pursuing law, it fosters the critical thinking, communication, and presentation abilities that are crucial for navigating the legal landscape and advocating effectively for clients.

4. Criminal Justice

Criminal justice majors study the workings of the criminal justice system, gaining a comprehensive understanding of corrections, court proceedings, and other legal processes. This in-depth knowledge proves invaluable for students aspiring to embark on a fulfilling and impactful career in criminal law. A criminal justice major provides a solid foundation for aspiring lawyers, equipping them with the essential skills and knowledge required to navigate the complexities of the legal system.

Criminal justice majors gain a comprehensive understanding of substantive criminal law, including the elements of various offenses, criminal defenses, and sentencing guidelines. Through coursework and internships, criminal justice majors familiarize themselves with courtroom procedures, evidence presentation, and trial strategies. They also learn about the corrections system, examining rehabilitation programs, parole procedures, and recidivism issues.

5. Psychology

Psychology is one of the most popular majors for undergraduates. A psychology major studies the human mind and behavior. Topics may include personalities, relationships, culture, emotions, and mental health. This is another major that includes reading, writing, and quantitative analysis.

Additionally, psychologists study cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior. They do this by observing, interpreting, and recording how individuals relate to one another and their environments. Psychology is a great major for students interested in becoming family lawyers or divorce lawyers but can apply to any type of lawyer.

If you’re interested in the other careers you can pursue with a psychology degree, see What Can You Do With A Psychology Degree?

6. Economics

Economics is one of the most popular majors for law school applicants. According to a 2022 report by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), economics was the most common major among law school applicants, with 17.4% of applicants majoring in economics.

There are several reasons why economics is a good major for a law degree. First, economics is a rigorous academic discipline that teaches students how to think critically and analyze complex problems. These are essential skills for lawyers, who must be able to understand complex legal issues and make sound legal arguments.

Second, economics provides students with a strong foundation in the law. Economics majors learn about the principles of contract law, property law, and tort law, all of which are important areas of law for lawyers.

Third, economics majors develop strong writing and communication skills. These skills are essential for lawyers, who must be able to write clear, concise, and persuasive legal documents.

7. Philosophy

Philosophy is a great pre-law major because philosophy majors develop many of the skills that are essential for success in law school, including critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and persuasive writing. In addition to these general skills, philosophy majors also gain exposure to a wide range of legal and ethical issues. This exposure can help students develop a deeper understanding of the law and its role in society.

The US Constitution with We The People focused in on. Those that get a law degree much uphold laws.

8. History

History is a common undergraduate degree for lawyers. Many estate planning lawyers who handle wills and trusts and asset protection have bachelor’s degrees in History. Almost 25% of history majors go into law school. A history degree exposes you to US laws, the Constitution, amendments, and the history of the country. All of this helps a law student understand how laws are made and how to abide by them.

What Is The Bar Exam

To practice as a lawyer you must pass the bar examination in the state you intend to practice. Many lawyers take the bar exam in several states after they finish law school. This is to reserve the right to work in those states while the information is still fresh. There are only 4 states in the US that do not require the completion of law school to take the bar exam. Those states include California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. Additionally, Wisconsin is the only state that does not require completion of the bar examination. Instead, if you are a graduate of an accredited law school, you can practice law.

The Exception Of California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington

California is a unique state. It is the only state that does not have an undergraduate degree requirement and does not require any prior law classes to take the bar exam. All 4 of these states have different but similar programs for becoming a lawyer. California expects you to find a lawyer to sponsor you through an apprenticeship, this is often called “reading the law”.

As a legal apprentice, you will learn the basics of law and after several years and jumping through some hoops, you will be qualified to take the bar exam. In California, you are required to spend at least 4 years at a law office. It’s important to note that the 4 years only count if you notify the state’s bar of your intent to “read the law” before starting as a legal apprentice.

In Vermont, the “reading the law” route is known as a Law Office Study Program. For all states, it’s important to note that even if you pass the bar exam, the time it will take to be qualified to take the exam may be longer than going through a Juris Doctorate program. Additionally, you may have a difficult time if you want to practice as an attorney later on in a different state that requires law school.

How To Get Into Law School

Getting into law school and earning a law degree is a competitive process, but there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of acceptance. Here are some of the most important factors to consider:

1. Earn A Strong Undergraduate Degree.

As we just mentioned, there is no specific undergraduate major required for law school, but a strong academic record is essential. Law schools typically look for applicants with a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

2. Take The Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

The LSAT is a standardized test that is required for admission to all law schools in the United States. The LSAT is designed to assess your critical thinking, reading comprehension, and analytical reasoning skills.

3. Write A Strong Personal Statement.

The personal statement is an opportunity for you to tell law schools about yourself and why you want to be a lawyer. Be sure to write a clear, concise, and persuasive statement that highlights your strengths and experiences.

4. Get Great Letters Of Recommendation.

Letters of recommendation are from professors, employers, or other professionals who can speak to your academic abilities and character. Be sure to ask for letters of recommendation from people who know you well and can write positive things about you.

5. Start The Application Process Early

The law school application process can be lengthy, so it is important to start early. Most law schools begin accepting applications in the fall of your senior year of college.

State-by-State Bar Exam Requirements

Every jurisdiction in the United States sets its own conditions for bar membership. This includes the format of their bar exam, the application deadlines, and the costs for applying for and taking the exam. Because each state varies it is important that every person applying to take the bar exam understands the rules for the state where they will take the exam. American University, Washington College of Law has a list of each state’s bar exam policies and procedures.