By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D. | 12/01/2023
Choosing a major can be difficult even when you know the career you want. To become a lawyer, you will need to graduate from a law school. But what degree should you pursue as an undergraduate? What do law schools want to see in their applicants?
For students who are prospective lawyers, the law school admission process looks for some objective skills, your Law School Admission Test (LSAT®) score, and your undergraduate degree grades. A law school may also consider personal factors unique to their applicants. Beyond that, will they take your undergraduate major into account?
What Undergraduate Degree Do You Need to Become a Lawyer?
The American Bar Association (ABA®) does not have a suggested bachelor's degree major for law school hopefuls.
"You may choose to major in subjects that are considered to be traditional preparation for law school, such as history, English, philosophy, political science, economics or business, or you may focus your undergraduate studies in areas as diverse as art, music, science and mathematics, computer science, engineering, nursing or education," the American Bar Association writes.
"Whatever major you select, you are encouraged to pursue an area of study that interests and challenges you, while taking advantage of opportunities to develop your research and writing skills. Taking a broad range of difficult courses from demanding instructors is excellent preparation for legal education."
In other words, when it comes to the "degrees to be a lawyer" question, the answer is any degree. Your prospective law school will look at your grades and make sure your law school admission test scores are up to par. Beyond that, you should research degree options based on the quality of their training and consider the way different fields of study will help you build a skill set you can use as you practice law.
Legal professionals need to have more than just a degree. In law firms, you will need to show critical thinking skills and understand legal documents, and that is something the law school admission council will also want to see. Your university grades are important, but they are not enough to demonstrate your readiness for a competitive law school.
Gaining some work experience can be a powerful addition to your application. Participate in legal research as part of an undergraduate degree program or take some time after earning your degree to work as a paralegal. These are great things to mention in your law school admissions process as you aspire to become a lawyer.
The Best Undergraduate Degrees to Help You Become a Lawyer
As you can see, the best undergraduate degree to help you become a lawyer really depends on where you hope to take your career. Consider which sub-field you might choose in the future. If you know your passion is corporate law or environmental law or family law or intellectual property law, lay the groundwork for that in your choice of a bachelor's degree.
Once you have an idea what sub-niche of law interests you, explore other sides of those industries during your degree program. For example, if you know you want to work in corporate America and have an interest in focusing on corporate law and business law then an undergraduate degree in economics or business would be a good fit:
- Economics: Economics can provide a solid foundation for understanding financial and economic aspects of the law.
- Business: If you're interested in corporate law or business-related legal fields, a business major can be beneficial.
These experiences will help you on your journey to become a lawyer who can look at the bigger picture of the business world and better communicate with more stakeholders in the company.
Law school training paired with a bachelor's degree in fields like these will help you become a lawyer who understands multiple systems in big businesses. Law students can and should create a plan that will build on the strengths of their bachelor's degree with the law school curriculum of their choice.
Attending law school and passing the bar exam are just two steps on your path. After you pass the bar exam, you can choose different aspects of the legal career to pursue.
Your state's bar association will give you a license to enter the legal field, but legal counsel in corporate environments will have very different skills than a criminal law attorney. They both can pass the bar exam, but becoming a lawyer involves focus areas and specialization beyond that.
Can Undergrad Courses Help Prepare You to Take the Bar Exam?
The question is: can some degrees help further your legal training and legal career as you aspire to become a lawyer?
Yes. When you practice law, the choice of your undergraduate major will become a foundation of additional knowledge. Think, for example, of criminal law. With better exposure to the criminal justice system, you will understand certain processes and legal terminology before you even attend law school or take the bar exam. A criminal justice degree can help to make courses in law school easier.
Another prime example of a useful degree to help prepare for law school is accounting. Tax law is a large legal field, and usually the skills are acquired in a specialized LLM program. An accounting degree can give you more background and make that training easier.
What about science majors? Does a law degree have anything to do with science?
Certainly. Since attorneys work with so many different industries, a deeper knowledge of the sciences can help you understand documents and cases related scientific intellectual property. In law school, you will have a chance to learn about intellectual property law, and those two foundations can help you seek employment in law firms that handle those cases.
If you are interested in constitutional law, a political science degree program can be a very good idea. You can choose courses on the legal system and read legal documents that will make your juris doctor degree experience easier.
Overall, the more exposure you can get to the legal profession before you take the bar exam, the better.
Choosing an Area of Law That Fits Your Personality
Since your area of law can help you decide what bachelor's degree to pursue, how do you choose a law degree?
Becoming a lawyer is a long process and legal professionals are very different than one another. Law school students should think about their passions before they make the choice where (or if) to attend law school. Ask yourself what kind of law career you are most interested in pursuing. Not all law firms are the same and not all government legal positions are similar.
For example, do you like to work with people? If so, a position that will focus on preparing legal documents solely might not be for you.
When choosing an area of law, take your time. Do not make a decision based on TV shows or things your heard about from others; make an informed decision. Shadowing a lawyer or working in a law firm or getting an internship in different law firms can help you choose what area you will be practicing law as well as how to maximize your law degree.
Thinking ahead in this way can also allow prospective law students to consider the tuition of their prospective programs and how that matches with their career ambitions.
For example, if you want to help the less-privileged, check labor statistics and career projections for salary estimates in those areas. Some prospective law students enroll in expensive law schools, then take humanitarian work that does not pay enough to cover their student loans.
Law school can be expensive, and becoming a licensed attorney does not mean you will make a six- figure salary right out of law school.
Considerations When Choosing an Accredited Law School
The law school you want to attend might also impact your choice of major in a bachelor's degree program. Aspiring lawyers could look into universities with a reputation for preparing students well for the LSAT or for graduates who often attend the law school they are interested in.
Looking into law school options now can help you prepare. An accredited law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA®) will allow you the best access to multiple jurisdictions for the bar exam. Ensure the law school you choose is an ABA-accredited law school.
There is one important caveat to that: not all jurisdictions require ABA accreditation. For example, online law schools can give degrees that will allow you to sit for the bar exam in some jurisdictions. Online law degree programs can be cheaper and allow you to study and continue to work, an option not available in all law schools.
Some aspiring lawyers choose a non-accredited law school because the closest law school is hundreds of miles away. It's a consideration that requires consultation with someone who knows the legal industry in your area.
If you can sit for the bar exam with that degree and if the training will give you a good chance to pass the bar exam, then a non-accredited school might be the best option. Students should research this potential option thoroughly before pursuing it.
Remember, choosing a field for legal practice and the appropriate legal education is not a choice you should make quickly. Be sure to do thorough research.
What If I Change My Mind After My Law Degree?
The years of education you need to become a lawyer take time. After completing law school, you might find that your worldview has changed a great deal. It is a normal facet of legal careers.
After a few years of practicing health law and focusing on civil procedure, you might want to change things and get into administrative law or focus on medical malpractice.
That is more than fine; practicing attorneys grow and develop new skills, and sometimes their areas of focus change. Our legal system is very large, and you can move from one area to another, bringing your transferable skills with you.
Let us say you become interested in international law after practicing tax law. Your juris doctor degree will have included a little bit about the international scope, but if you have been working in tax law for years after the bar exam, can you really switch?
You absolutely can. Many of the skills you refine in one branch of law will be just as important in another: legal research, legal drafting, or negotiations.
You might also find a good deal of natural crossover between your first and second areas of interest. Environmental law and international law, for example, will both have areas in common, and your area of expertise in one may make you a promising candidate for the other.
The critical thinking skills you develop as you practice law will pass to other sub-fields. The legal industry is big, and law school graduates find themselves dealing with varied cases that integrate the subjects they learned in their juris doctor studies.
Becoming a lawyer is a multi-layered process. The different stops along the way such as your choice of undergraduate program, the law school admission test, your choice of law school, your focus area, and the bar examination are all just part of becoming a lawyer.
Even when law school graduates pass the bar examination and each become a lawyer, their careers are only just beginning. It's wise to get in the habit of using all your experiences to make yourself a better attorney who can be efficient in your field of choice.
LSAT is a registered trademark of the Law School Admission Council, Inc.
ABA is a registered trademark of the American Bar Association.