Transferable Skills: Leveraging Your Undergraduate Education for Success in Law School (Guest Post)

One of the interesting things about law school is that anyone with a four-year degree can attend. There’s no specialized undergraduate training required for admission, and law schools end up with an eclectic grouping of all sorts of majors: English, History, Political Science, Engineering, Math, Business—the list could go on and on. Keep in mind, though, once you cross the threshold into law school you are expected to be responsible for your own education. In other words, don’t expect to receive explicit instructions on how to transfer your individual background in the context of your nascent legal education because that’s part of what you are supposed to figure out. In the midst of so much new stuff, it’s normal to end up feeling like you are lost at sea and disconnected from everything you thought you knew. But connections between your earlier education experiences and your new legal studies do exist, and you can use the knowledge and skills you already possess to achieve success in law school.

It might seem that some undergraduate disciplines offer significant advantages over others, at least as they relate to law school. I’ve often heard complaints that the political science majors have an edge because they understand the federal and state governmental systems really well. Or perhaps English majors have it made because they are used to reading and writing. The reality, though, is that each discipline has strengths, and each has weaknesses. I once taught an engineer who was worried about his writing course because he had not been required to write papers in undergrad. He ended up being one of the top students in the class, though, because his analytical mind knew just how to distill a complicated legal theory down to its essential core.

As a law student, you can ease your transition into legal studies by building on the inherent strengths of your undergraduate education and improving upon the intrinsic weaknesses. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of some undergraduate majors commonly found amongst law students:

Business Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience with some legal concepts like contracts; knowledge of business practices; creation of practical solutions.
  • Weaknesses: Less experience with expository writing; preference for clear answers

Engineering Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience in problem-solving; linear/methodological thinking; logical/systematic thought processes
  • Weaknesses: Less experience with expository writing; preference for clear answers

English Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience with varied writing assignments; research experience; knowledge of citation systems.
  • Weaknesses: Tendency toward wordiness; tendency to overinclude information

History Majors:

  • Strengths: Knowledge of ancient legal systems; understanding of cultures and societies; research and writing experience
  • Weaknesses: Little experience in analytical problem-solving; tendency to memorize facts and regurgitate information

Math Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience in problem-solving; linear/methodological thinking; logical/systematic thought processes
  • Weaknesses: Less experience with expository writing; preference for measurable outcomes

Political Science Majors:

  • Strengths: Knowledge of the court system; familiarity with foundational documents (like the Constitution); experience with long reading and writing assignments
  • Weaknesses: Little experience in analytical problem-solving; tendency to memorize facts and regurgitate information

Because our brains process and comprehend new and abstract information by relating it to existing knowledge and life experiences, finding connections between undergraduate and law school experiences is essential for success, especially in the first year. The above descriptions represent just the tip of the iceberg with regard to potential connections between law school and your past educational experiences. For more on this topic, check out Teri McMurtry-Chubb’s book, Legal Writing in the Disciplines. This book is especially helpful to students enrolled in legal writing, but its concepts easily relate to all law classes, making it an easy-to-follow guide for students who are interested in pushing their legal education to the next level.

*This guest blog post was authored by Elizabeth Megale, Associate Professor and Director of the Legal Skills & Professionalism Program, Savannah Law School.

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2 Comments

Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Pre-Law

2 responses to “Transferable Skills: Leveraging Your Undergraduate Education for Success in Law School (Guest Post)

  1. Eh, I’d take issue with the assertion that history majors lack analytic thinking and only regurgitate facts. Perhaps, some history programs are like that, but I never regurgitated facts because I’m awful at that. A good program will encourage critical thinking and analyzing an essay to apply academic work and theories as well as primary sources in order to argue your own conclusion much like what you have to do on law exams. So I suppose the moral of this story is choose a good school that also has your desired program.
    I also find your lack of language majors disturbing.

    • susandlandrum

      Thanks for your observations, Christine. As a former history major myself (in fact, I have a Ph.D. in history), I agree that a history major’s skills will depend on the program that he or she was in as an undergraduate. Some history programs do focus on developing critical thinking and analysis skills, but others focus more on a student’s ability to memorize facts and give them back on exams. The examples in this post reflect challenges that students commonly have, not those experienced by every student. Similarly, the majors that Professor Megale chose to illustrate her points are just examples–there are many other majors that could be included, but the nature of the blog requires posts to be relatively short.

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