Undergraduate Degrees and Legal Career Options

What role does your undergraduate degree have in choosing your legal career options? If you have already chosen your major, what are the best options for you? Find out what our experts have to say.

What Major Should a Student Take if They Want to Be a Lawyer?

Q: What major should a student take if they want to be a lawyer? I have seen many different majors that deal with law, and I know what type of lawyer I want to be, but I don't know what I need to major in.

A: There is no one recommended pre-law major yet prospective lawyers should develop their skills in writing and speaking, reading, researching, analyzing and thinking logically. The Occupational Outlook Handbook states that regardless of major, a multidisciplinary background is recommended. Coursework should include English, history, foreign language, public speaking, government, philosophy, economics, mathematics and computer science among others are useful. With that in mind, certain majors do seem somewhat common among pre-law students including Political Science, History, Philosophy and Business.

If one is interested in a particular aspect of law (which you stated you are but did not specify which aspect) then they may find related courses helpful. Thus, if one is interested in patent law, a background in engineering or science might apply, while an interest in tax law would dictate some accounting background.

To further explore different areas of law practice one can visit the American Bar Association's discussion of its Sections.

Professions for a Law Student with an Undergraduate Degree in Accounting

Q: I need information about professions available for a law student with an undergraduate degree in accounting. Possibly in securities, sports, tax?

A: An accounting degree is really a good background for almost any type of law practice. Any type of corporate or securities law and tax law are definitely good choices. Also, large accounting firms hire lawyers with accounting backgrounds, and often send them back to school while they are working to get an LLM in tax. I would add, however, that you don't necessarily have to use your accounting background if you don't want to--all areas of practice should be open to you at this early point in your career. So, check them all out while you are a student-try different internships and summer jobs, and talk to graduates about how they like their jobs. I do think that an accounting background combined with a law degree is a great combination and will look good on your resume.

Pre-Law Student Majoring in Spanish and Portuguese

Q: I am currently a pre-law student majoring in Spanish and Portuguese. I love to find a way to apply these to a future law degree. What exactly is international law and how are the odds of an American student working in a foreign country?

A: I commend you for your choice of such interesting and important languages to study. However, you will probably wish to be realistic about their limited applicability to a future career in law. If you are a citizen of the United States, you will probably wish to study law in the United States. International law coursework will inevitably be a relatively small proportion of your curriculum in law school. Upon graduating, your career prospects will probably not be greatly enhanced by your language skills, but instead will have much more to do with the quality of the law school you attended and your class rank. Relatively few Americans practice law overseas. Most expatriate practitioners are affiliated with the overseas branches of major domestic U.S. firms, which are highly selective in their admissions. This alone should not discourage you, if you are bright and aggressive. But your language abilities, though immensely valuable interpersonally, will most likely prove somewhat less valuable than other assets you will need to secure an international commercial or transnational (inter-governmental) practice.

Is There Any Aspect of Law That Would Relate to a Sociology Background and Allow Me to Live Abroad?

Q: I currently hold a B.A in Anthropology and a M.A. in Sociology. I am thinking about going back to school in the fall of 2002 for a law degree. I eventually want to live outside the United States. Is there any specific aspect of law that would provide me with this option and at the same time relate to my degrees?

A: Broadly speaking, the entire field of law relates to the subjects of anthropology and sociology, since laws represent an institutionalization of social mores and norms. However, I can think of few (if any) specific fields within the law that relate directly to either of these subjects, though the fields of human rights and constitutional law come to mind. Furthermore, a law degree is not highly transportable or useful overseas. There are limited numbers of U.S.-trained lawyers practicing in overseas branch offices of U.S.-based firms. International agencies (such as the various organs of the United Nations) do hire some lawyers, though strict nationality quotas in several international agencies make it difficult to hire U.S.-trained lawyers. I would encourage you to attend law school with an open mind and no fixed plan for what you will do with your law degree after graduation. Legal education provides a rigorous assimilation experience, and your professional and personal goals are likely to change significantly as you go along.

The Best Area of Law to Practice With a Math Degree

Q: What would be the best areas of law to practice with a math degree?

A: One of the hot areas right now is patent law, especially in the area of software. Certainly with your background, you would have the advantage of being able to understand the technical aspects of the software. You need to be specially licensed to practice patent law. If you are currently in law school, you might want to discuss the field with a professor that teaches patent law.

What Law Schools Do the Top Lawyers Come From?

Q: Where do the top people at top firms come from and what schools did they attend?

A: The highest-achieving lawyers in private practice come from many different law schools. Though initially it is an advantage to graduate from a highly-rated law school, it is not essential to do so. Many "top" lawyers at "top" firms graduated from less highly rated schools, but they excelled in the skills of practicing law and of marketing their skills to clients. If you are skilled in these areas, you may succeed well. Law practice is highly competitive, and success tends to be merit-based and also somewhat "political."

You may also wish to think seriously about what it means to you to envy or admire "top" performers. Are you possibly seeking to fill self-esteem needs by aspiring to the "top," and if so, are you confident this is the best way to do so? I counsel many "top" lawyers who are miserably unhappy in their work (and life). What path do you imagine will make you most deeply happy in life? When you take inventory of your life someday, will you be assessing whether or not you made it to the "top"? I wish you the best in your reflections on these questions, and in your professional career planning.