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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Undergraduate Majors and Law School

A new book about inadequate undergraduate education has been receiving widespread attention.  I particularly noted the following conclusion:

The study also found significant differences by field of study. Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and math—again, controlling for their background—did relatively well. Students majoring in business, education, and social work did not.

Prospective law students should keep these findings in mind.  Undergraduate degrees in business, education, and social work do not have a strong track record in instilling the critical reading, writing, and thinking skills that law school requires.  These fields are highly important, but, for whatever reason, they do not lend themselves well to rigorous undergraduate education.

Posted by Carlton Larson on January 25, 2011 at 07:29 PM | Permalink


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I agree that working for at least a year (preferably more) between college and law school makes a substantial difference in how difficult (or easy) it is for law students to catch-on. Much more so than choice of major. Moreover, I haven't seen it make much difference what the work was. I think it's direct contact with the real world that makes the difference. Much of what's studied in law school involves grown-up's problems(employment, illness , property ownership) so that if you've had some of the experiences that come with working and with living on your own you can better understand and apply the relevant legal rules. Top business schools, of course, have always known this and usually don't accept students directly from college.

Posted by: Jennifer Bard | Jan 27, 2011 1:34:57 AM

I always wanted to ask what courses or topics the law professors here would have advised their students to take if they could have advised them as undergraduates.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Jan 26, 2011 11:34:27 AM

My informal sense of student preparation is that the single most important factor in being well-prepared for law school is having held a full-time job for at least a year after college. I find it much easier to teach critical reasoning to students who already have good real-world judgment than vice-versa. Funny, that.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jan 26, 2011 8:34:58 AM

One possible step is for law schools to require applicants to be better-prepared, whatever their majors. If first-year law students had already studied logic, economics, American history, and debate, they might succeed at a higher rate in the first year of law school and, if the current correlations between first-year grades and bar success held, they might thereafter have a higher pass-rate on the bar exam.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. | Jan 26, 2011 7:32:22 AM

James - I think it's the latter point (students in business, education, and social work are developing skills that aren't effectively measured by the study). But I think that's the point - they're learning skills, they're not learning how to think. That is, in my admittedly biased view, not what college is for. Which is why I've long thought those things should not be undergraduate majors.

Posted by: Mark McKenna | Jan 25, 2011 11:15:29 PM

What this suggests to me is that business, education, and social work are not things that can be taught effectively in a collegiate setting. Students who major in them are either getting shortchanged by mismatched instruction, or are developing situated skills that aren't effectively measured by the study.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jan 25, 2011 7:52:27 PM

As someone who sometimes teaches philosophy to undergrads, I'd like to think that the humanities could take all the credit for improving their students. But I wonder how much self-selection is going on here, with students who are not really that interested in a traditional liberal eduction, who just want a credential (reasonably so, sometimes) going into business or education or social work, rather than these fields particularly failing to teach their students. I'm not sure what could be done to tease this apart, if anything, but I'd be really surprised if the underlying material wasn't at least a significant part of the quality of the finished product here.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 25, 2011 7:34:49 PM

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