Why a Liberal Arts Education is Perfect for Law School
Being a lawyer was always what I wanted to do. When I was little and people asked me what I wanted to be, I said, “Lawyer.” I had always gone toward that career with no thoughts to the contrary, and my time at Hamilton honed my ability to think, analyze, and be the best law student possible.
My Hamilton majors in economics and French pushed me toward law in their own ways. I loved languages growing up, but studying French and studying abroad in Paris for a semester taught me a certain level of grace and humility in failure. When I had no option but to stand in front of a classroom of French nationals and talk for twenty minutes, I learned to put aside my pride and trust in what I’d learned. I learned to talk around words I didn’t know and fake it until I got to the point. Law school has been no different. I tried out for the Transactional Team, and I’d never negotiated an asset purchase agreement before -- I’d never negotiated anything. But the experience wasn’t so different from that presentation at Université Paris 7. I suspended my pride and trusted myself and my abilities. I confidently spoke around concepts I didn’t understand, and I made it onto the team.
Economics has given me an unparalleled edge in law school. The economics major forced me to question assumptions, to evaluate all the factors in a data set, and to be creative and think of all the possible variables in a regression. My economics major forced me to interpret economic principles and also human reactions to them. Law is no different. The ability to question assumptions about the meaning of a contract clause and to twist it to your advantage is invaluable. I learned these analytical thinking skills from my economics major, and I wouldn’t have pushed through my discomfort of learning a new way to think without the strong female professors that I had at Hamilton.
William & Mary as a law school is similar to Hamilton – it’s small, close-knit, and a genuine community. Everyone knows everyone there; anyone would offer you a ride home or their outlines. This is especially wonderful considering that law school is graded on a curve. As a first-year at W&M, only 10% of students in each class can earn an A. And even so, students help one another; it’s a gift that I appreciate, but one that feels like a bit of a continuation from Hamilton’s friendly student body.
One thing that helped me immeasurably starting law school was that I had amazing mentors. For students considering law school, find second- and third-years whom you can talk to. There’s nothing better than advice from those who have been there. Anyone can get through law school, but it’s hard to succeed. Talking to older students helps you find out which places require hard work and which places require smart work. Because law school courses are almost entirely predicated upon one final exam score, it’s important to understand how the class topics fit together, how they interact, and how best to synthesize them for an overworked professor.
I’m interested in transactional and corporate work, and the creative ways of thinking that I learned at Hamilton and William & Mary are the only reason I’ve succeeded so far. The liberal arts education makes the difference in thinking on your feet during a negotiation, in being able to attack a problem in several ways. Seeing patterns and trends does nothing but make life easier on law school exams and in internships–my summer internship was with the SEC’s Office of Risk and Strategy, and patterns were the only things I researched. That’s my biggest takeaway from law school so far – you aren’t learning the law; you’re learning how to think about the law. Understanding that distinction makes all the difference from the middle of the curve to the top of it. Also, it makes law school a lot more fun!
Now seems like the perfect time to study law; the law is increasingly important in our politically divided American society. So many news stories revolve around questions of legality. “Is this Constitutional?” or “Why did those officers not get in trouble?” The study of law doesn’t have all the answers (okay, it has some), but it gives just one more lens of analysis with which to examine these questions. Studying law forces me to ask the questions of what morality is, who decides it, and what role the law should play in enforcing it. COVID-19 may have changed the format of classes – I am entirely remote for my courses – but the content is unchanged. My professors still force me into a new way of thinking the same way my Hamilton professors did. I still have to evaluate what I know and why I think I know it. I have to think of five new conclusions, but also five new ways to get to the same one conclusion. Applying these skills to the political climate and to current events helps to parse out hysteria from genuine worry, flawed statistics from well-constructed research.
Advice for Undergraduates
Relax, it’ll be okay. That’s genuinely the best advice I can give. If you want to go to law school and you’re at Hamilton now, there are lots of resources online for how to study for the LSAT, etc. But once you’ve taken the LSAT and you have your score, that’s when the advice really kicks it. You’re going to find the place you’re meant to be, and as long as you’re attending a reputable law school, you’ll be fine. While at Hamilton, try to diversify your coursework. Learning new ways of thinking is the best possible practice for studying law. Embrace the QSR; take a math or science course; get a C+ (I sure did!), but learn a lot doing so. It was genuinely uncomfortable to wrap my brain around languages, calculus, The Canterbury Tales, and the philosophy of environmentalism, but I am now so glad that I sacrificed an A or two to re-adjust how my brain works. The liberal arts education is your best weapon in law school.
Another piece of advice that might not apply to all: law school is expensive. Unless you’re at a top school, it is very difficult to justify paying full price for a law school. Law school salaries are very bimodal. Though you may see an average salary and think that it sounds nice, the majority of law students either go to a public interest position or a government job. The handful of students who do big law – the high-paying large firm jobs in big cities – skew the average higher. I encourage anyone applying to law school to look at each school’s ABA-required employment disclosures. You may be shocked at how many students are unemployed or working for less pay than they could’ve received with just their undergraduate degrees. Many schools find JD-required jobs for only half of their graduates! For me, it made more sense to go to W&M with a great scholarship than a different school for full price. Law is a passion for many of us, but it is so important to look at whether or not a particular law school makes sense for your future (maybe that’s the economics degree talking!).
Also, something not a lot of people know – you can negotiate! If you get a good scholarship from a school and a so-so one from a comparable school, it is perfectly okay to leverage one against the other. A concise email explaining how much you love the school but how you can’t justify such a debt given your generous offer from a similar school is all it takes. It is expected and very par for the course in law school admissions to negotiate scholarships. It’s also great practice for when you try out for the Transactional Law Team!
Okay, so now you’ve chosen a law school with great career opportunities and you’re sitting pretty on a scholarship. What now? Relax. Take the summer off or work a fun job if it’s feasible for you to do so. Don’t try to get ahead. Don’t read books about law school (okay, maybe watch Legally Blonde). Don’t stress. There is nothing you can do in advance to get a leg up other than to go into law school with an open mind, because you’re about to go on a crazy, three-year ride. Once school starts, remember this: Relax! It’ll be okay, I promise.