Pre-Law and Liberal Arts – Liberal Studies Programs with a Concentration in Pre-Law

Pre law student seeing scales of justice

Pursuing a liberal arts degree for a pre-law education is actually right in line with the liberal arts tradition. Not so long ago, all studies of the law would have been preceded by pre-law studies for a liberal arts degree. There were no particular specializations in bachelor of arts programs in the early universities. A bachelor of arts was the only qualification you needed before going on to specialize with a master’s or doctorate in theology, medicine, or the law.

Today, dedicated pre-law bachelor’s programs enroll most students who are looking to go on to earn a juris doctor (JD) and sit for their state’s bar exam. In many respects, their education will resemble what a liberal arts degree will offer in terms of critical thinking, clarity in communication, and the arts of persuasion.

But with a liberal arts major and pre-law concentration, you get to see the law from the other side of the table, too.

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Your understanding of culture and society gives you more opportunity to reflect on inequality and injustice resulting from laws passed with historical blinders.

You may see ways in which the history of legal philosophy can be applied to modern society to reveal unethical or immoral standards. The breadth of your training is an advantage on either side of the bar.

You can think of laws as the source code that society runs on. Lawyers are the hackers who help create the code, interpret it, and debug it. And the better your understanding of society, the more effectively you can make that code work for the greater good.

A Degree in Liberal Arts with a Concentration in Pre-Law Helps Illustrate How Law and Society Influence One Another

Legal work and liberal arts are a perfect fit.

Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law and legal reasoning. And most of modern Western jurisprudence emerged from the same moral and ethical philosophers who shaped the liberal arts. Students in every liberal arts program will crack open books on the philosophies of Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, Bentham, and Hume for their thoughts on utility, morality, natural law, and reason. Many of the drafters of some of our most influential legal instruments have done the same, and cited those influences.

Jeremy Bentham portrait
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison was never built, but some liberal arts scholars believe that modern surveillance society accomplishes a similar goal.

Stemming from the same roots, it makes all kinds of sense that a liberal arts education offers some serious advantages to future lawyers and legal scholars. Legal reasoning requires the same types of critical thinking, clear communication, and effective persuasion that are taught in a liberal studies degree program. The art of rhetoric is invaluable to lawyers trying to convince judges or juries in a courtroom. Tight, logical writing is the only way to put together a convincing legal brief.

These are the same types of skills that are taught in any pre-law program, of course. But by taking a liberal studies degree with a concentration in pre-law, the emphasis of your education will be on the core skills and broader perspectives that the law works within.

Studying Liberal Arts is Actually an Edge When it Comes to Getting into Law School

Gavel and lady justice on deskA 2003 study by the National Institutes of Education found, impressively, that philosophy graduates scored highest of any type of degree holder on the all-important LSAT (Law School Admission Test). A liberal arts program is very similar to a philosophy program, often coming with philosophy concentrations, in fact.

If you are going into a pre-law program, then the law is where you are heading. But earning a JD can qualify you for more positions than just becoming a lawyer.

Fine legal minds are also in demand to help craft the legislation that will become legal code when passed. So a pre-law liberal studies degree can help you snag positions in politics and government.

What Subjects Are Studied In Liberal Arts Programs with a Concentration in Pre-Law?

Pre-law student in library readingYou get a lot of overlap between traditional pre-law courses and core liberal arts studies. Critical-thinking is perhaps the most vital skill in both of those areas of study. It stands to reason you’ll follow the same kind of traditional coursework in philosophy and logic to hone that skill.

Working in the law requires a lot of interpretation. No legal system can perfectly cover every possible situation that might occur. Inevitably, there are ambiguities about the meaning of code or how it applies in unforeseen situations.

American lawyers work through a type of legal reasoning by analogy—that is, comparing current cases to previous cases, and making decisions that are coherent.

Any pre-law program will come with classes in symbolic logic and legal reasoning.

A liberal arts education offers the perfect preparation for creating and arguing these analogies, though. Your coursework in general knowledge areas offers the points for comparison; your training in logic allows you to develop ironclad arguments to present. And your schooling in communication skills and the ancient art of rhetoric, common in any liberal studies degree, helps build the persuasive style you will need to win your day in court. Many trial lawyers head right for classes in another category of liberal arts, acting and drama.

But you will get plenty of training in traditional elements of pre-law to prepare you for intensive legal studies down the road, too. Those include:

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Real World Experiences Help Polish Your Legal Expertise in Pre-Law Liberal Studies

Smiling pre-law student on steps to courthousePre-law studies in liberal arts degree programs also commonly offer internship programs that will put you out in real-world law offices and courtrooms, watching judges and lawyers go through the mechanics of making decisions. Observing that work up close lets you put both your legal and your liberal studies training to use as a critical observer and trained learner.

You’ll also get opportunities to participate in moot court programs, roleplaying in classroom settings as lawyers and judges to practice your craft.

Some universities even offer 3+3 degree options, which jump start your career in law by getting you out of undergraduate studies and into law school fast. In these programs, by arrangement with cooperating law schools, your university may allow you to skip your final year of undergraduate study in favor of participating in your first year of law school. Assuming your successful completion of the JD program, that year will effectively count for both your bachelor’s program and the JD.

You’ll also find more and more colleges that deliver a liberal arts program mostly online these days. With the kind of connectivity offered by the internet now, you can stay just as connected for those all-important seminar courses, while avoiding having to relocate to be close to your preferred school. And since many courts went online during COVID-19, even your video-streamed moot court sessions will have a fresh sense of gritty reality to them!

You don’t have to become a lawyer with a pre-law concentration from a liberal studies degree, but you’ll never look at law and society the same way again. You can take that education and achieve great things in almost any field.