By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.  |  12/14/2023

bachelor's degree program law school curriculum

I have been an attorney since 2004, and I have seen many changes in the field. Law is one of those fields where change is constant, and career evolution is always a result of a lawyer reinventing their professional focus areas and skills. When so much changes in this industry, how can someone build a good foundation for a legal career?

Well, some things are clear up front. A strong work ethic is at the core of the legal profession; to become a lawyer, you also need to commit to lifelong learning. That begins in college as you choose courses that can help you start building a future career.

Related: What Is Business Law – and Why Is It Important?


If You Want to Become a Lawyer, Work on Your Soft Skills

The three pillars that are the basis of legal training and the legal profession in general are legal knowledge, critical thinking skills, and effective communication. Sometimes called soft skills (or transferable skills), critical thinking and communication are direct focuses in many undergraduate courses.

Courses to be a lawyer should include these types of courses first. Undergraduate courses will not transfer to a law school themselves (although the American Bar Association has begun to consider some options), but the skills you develop may help you during the rest of your career.

Since grades will matter, you need to choose courses you can work hard and succeed at. After that, choose courses that will help make attending law school easier. Some courses will give you exposure to legal terms and make your first year of law school a little easier (an important consideration since your grades in law school will also be very important).

Pre-law programs will give you undergraduate courses with a basic overview of business law, corporate law or tax law. Those courses will also give you the opportunity to read some legal documents. This knowledge isn't enough to pass the bar exam, certainly, but it can create an effective basis that will help improve your career as a law student.

General undergraduate courses can offer a myriad of different foundations to build on. Here are some examples to consider if you want to apply for law school.

1. Political Science Courses

The overarching view political science courses can provide is, in my experience, an element most law schools do not cover. Legal practice can be hyper-focused and a lawyer dealing with family law, real estate law, or health law might spend an entire legal career in a law firm doing the exact same thing in the same genre of legal writing without seeing the big picture of the legal system.

A few political science courses will also provide a background knowledge of constitutional law, a field that law school students will meet in their second year of law school. A constitutional law course will introduce the students not only to the basics of the field, but also a taste of how the Constitution connects to criminal justice.

2. Criminal Justice Courses

Courses in criminal law also offer a big picture look at the legal system, illuminating the macro level of societal context that influences how the whole criminal justice system works. In law school, students will look at cases closely with a micro perspective, dealing with the details of each isolated issue. With a larger perspective, you can understand the pipeline that sends people to jail.

3. Environmental Science Courses

Will a science major be helpful when you seek a future legal career? It could.

For example, environmental law requires an understanding of scientific texts and an understanding of scientific terminology. Courses in environmental science could be extremely beneficial if you decide to become a lawyer who works in this branch of the law.

4. Biology and Medical Courses

Future lawyers have much to gain from science education. Additionally, law school students now come from a more diversified background than they used to. These diverse education paths are an asset to the whole profession. Aspiring lawyers who want to practice medical tort law will be better at their jobs if they have a background in medicine and biology.

5. Accounting Courses

Attorneys have many opportunities to work in the business world, and an accounting foundation could be very helpful if you are working on cases where you need to understand complicated accounts. Tax law and business law would also have direct intersections with this field.

6. Research-Heavy Courses

Many general English, history, psychology, healthcare, and science courses will require research skills and research papers. During your bachelor's degree, seek out those courses and take the opportunity to sharpen your research skills.

Legal research and legal writing skills are important for all legal professionals. Law students consistently need to demonstrate their research abilities.

7. Writing and Communication Courses

Communication is one of the three most important pillars in the profession. Use your undergraduate degree years to get some extra training in oral and written communication. Law schools' curriculum will cover these skills specific to the field, but getting a head start is a good idea.

Writing skills are not easy to develop, and law schools often have legal educators that focus on writing skills. Many attorneys work directly in legal writing roles. A strong foundation in writing will also help with your law school application and the coursework you fulfill as part of your juris doctor degree.

8. Exam-Heavy Courses

If you want to become a lawyer, you have to excel at test-taking. The Law School Admission Test (LSAT®) is a famous example and a core part of the law school admissions process.

I am not a big fan of standardized tests, personally, but the Law School Admission Council is not likely to move away from this tool to rank prospective law students. The LSAT does not necessarily give a good prediction of law school success. But if you want to become a lawyer and practice criminal law, corporate law, intellectual property law, or any other type of law, you need to achieve a good score.

To prepare for the LSAT and the other tests you will face in law school, choose exam-heavy courses during your undergraduate degree. It's counterintuitive, and many students purposefully avoid courses that involve extra tests, but gaining this practice could help you in more ways than one.

A good LSAT score will give you more options for admission into law school. Different law schools vary not only by prestige but also by financial aid and tuition cost. The more law schools you can choose from, the better your chance of getting a package you can work with.

In this way, college courses that push you to gain test-taking skills can help you save on tuition funds. A law school that is less nationally known might be willing to give scholarships to students with stellar LSAT scores and a demonstrated ability to study well.


Educational and Licensing Requirements to Become an Attorney

To practice law and to become a lawyer, you need a bachelor's degree. After this degree, you will need to pass the Law School Admission Test and graduate from a law school with a juris doctor degree. Then you can take the bar examination for the jurisdiction where you aim to practice law.

Law schools approved by the American Bar Association build their programs in a way that will maximize the number of jurisdictions where their graduates can take the bar exam. In many states, practicing law requires law students to take part in legal clinics so prospective law students need to think where they want to practice law after graduation.

Some states will allow aspiring lawyers to sit for the bar exam from a non-ABA law school. If you plan to practice law in one of those states, those law schools might be a good option. Students should research their state of interest.

Your state's bar association will determine what specific credentials you need to have in order to sit for the bar exam.


Will the Result of the Bar Exam Matter?

The bar exam is very different from the Law School Admission Test. The scores you need to pass the bar can change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Law students who passed a unified bar exam might then "pass" in one state, but not another.

Beyond that threshold, does it matter how well you do on the bar exam? Generally, no.

A good friend of mine practices intellectual property law in an office next to me in New York City. He always tells me he has no recollection of the material he studied for the bar exam.

If you ask him about family law or environmental law, he will give you a blank face common to many legal professionals. Many attorneys know how to file legal documents from their own niche, and that is it. Ask them to write document for civil litigation or serve as legal counsel for a labor law issue, and they would have no idea where to begin.

In a nutshell, the bar exam covers a great deal of material you may not have to retain to practice law. The scores do not matter – just pass the bar examination.


Can I Take Online Courses to Be a Lawyer?

Yes, there are institutions that will give a law degree for online students. But before you enroll, remember that the most effective law degree is from an American Bar Association-approved law school.

The ABA has approved some law schools for hybrid programs, and a graduate from those law programs will receive a juris doctor degree that will allow them to sit for the bar examination in multiple states. Make sure to verify this important detail before making a commitment to any law school, online or otherwise.

But you might still question if a degree from a hybrid law program will be respected by hiring law firms and the other entities you will encounter as an attorney. There is no easy answer here. While online courses have certainly become more commonplace in many professions, individuals make their own decision on what they respect.

It is also worth considering how you will perform in a hybrid program. Some students will excel in online courses while others will suffer.


Decide If You Really Want to Attend Law School

Many people who are interested in law first think, "I'll become a lawyer," but there are many important roles in the legal profession.

For example, paralegals have a critical role in the legal space. Many law firms have legal assistants who fill important legal positions that do not require them to attend law school, have a law degree, or pass the bar exam.

A paralegal can prepare property law documents for an attorney to review and sign. A law degree is not a requirement to find a satisfying legal career.

Think long and hard before taking out student loans. There are no promises when it comes to your career. Even if a law school presents employment data, always take it with a grain of salt.

You need to decide if a law degree is really what you want. No one can promise you a high salary after you graduate, and student loan debt is nothing to overlook. If you want to become a licensed attorney, then law school is the path for you. If you want a good career in the legal profession, take time to consider your options other than obtaining a law degree.

About the Author
Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. In Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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