Baby Lawyers: Your Pre-Law Degree: Does it Matter?



I figured I would end my posts for 2020 with a question that I always saw searched when I was applying for law schools.


Even then, it puzzled me.


Namely, "WHAT UNDERGRADUATE DEGREES ARE BEST FOR LAW SCHOOL."


Also phrased as, "Does my pre-Law degree matter?"


Well. Does it matter?


Short answer: No. As in, it really shouldn't hinder you in your goal of practicing law.


Long answer: It may set up what sort of law you will practice in the future.


(Note: This is written from a strictly Canadian perspective; I am aware that many programs internationally have a pre-law program or an undergraduate law degree. However, at the time of writing, in Canada, this is not the case aside from studying Criminology or 'Legal Studies'. Both, however, are obviously more of a direct pathway towards studying law, and will not be explored through the course of this post.)


So what do I mean about this in practice?


  • For example, Intellectual Property lawyers often have a science background, and especially for certain areas like patent law, firms often recruit IP lawyers that are able to understand the nuance of the technology or scientific ideas that may be looking to be patented. Understandable.


  • Business degree? The obvious choice is commercial law, but you don't have to necessarily have a business background before law school to end up in commercial law. This is more flexible.


  • Liberal arts, like dance, drama, etc? This could set you up for entertainment law; however, unless you plan on relocating to hubs of entertainment law (namely, Los Angeles in the States, or even Vancouver, BC), it is a hard gig to get into, and from what I've heard, positions are few and far between. The best way I've heard to get involved in more of these niche areas is go to a full-service firm, get a broad breadth of experience there, and then head back into a firm or organization that specifically practices that area when you get to the other side.


By this point in my post, hopefully you're getting that there are opportunities for movement forward into a law career either way.


The only stock I would place in your pre-law degree, is that it just helps define what your personal approach may be to what you practice in the long run.


If you are truly interested in an area, you shouldn't let what you may perceive as a 'non-traditional' background slow you down. Intellectual Property copyright lawyers are less stringent in terms of background, for example; copyright law is often more about the language of a contract, rather than the technical jargon of, say, a patent law case.


I also know of a lawyer who practices solely Aboriginal Law, and took absolutely no Aboriginal Law courses in law school. However- she made sure she went to a full-service law firm, learned a wide range of skills, and was able to sell herself as someone who had a broad range of skills to offer a more specific firm area. There are ways to become involved in areas you may like, even "later" after law school.


You can also learn business acumen in an articling/ law student position. From my personal experience with an undergraduate degree in Classics, and a double minor in English and German Literature, I had absolutely no idea of business when I first started working in a firm. My entire family are teachers, and that is usually a straightforward career path with little to no networking involved, in its strictest sense (obviously, teaching involves other soft skills that many lawyers don't have!). I had to teach myself business acumen, and to think like a lawyer, charging fees and accumulating business. I'm a testament (as well as many other lawyers with bachelor of arts degrees), that it can be taught.



Coming to Law with a more "Professional" Degree/ As a Second Career:


I want to let anyone coming law later in life know, that having a second career before law is not a detriment on your C.V., but a testament to you having the life skills to move forward into a secondary career.


For example, I taught as a teacher during that year off at a private ESL institution in a remedial English class, and it taught me many skills that people take for granted. Patience, for one. Being able to rope in a large group of people. Talking to authority figures, organizational skills, paperwork, you name it. It's a lot of transferable skills and experience working in a professional environment that many students who enter an articling position are short on.


Another example of transferable skills I learned: Anyone who knows anything about teaching, or even learning a second language, knows that every person has a preference in terms of communication. I've met a lot of lawyers in practice who may not have experience speaking a second language, and get frustrated when their clients cannot understand the material they are trying to present them with.


What they usually fail to understand, and what I learned from both my own journeys in being multi-linguistic and in teaching ESL, is something which is seemingly very obvious, but you'll be surprised at how much it has made me a better communicator.


Namely: Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.


For example, I went to French school for elementary school when I was young.


As a result, I understand fluent French in terms of reading and listening skills. But in terms of writing and my own oral skills in French? They're rough around the edges, to say the least. I haven't practiced either for a long time after leaving a French-speaking province.


In a legal situation, if someone asked me to explain orally my situation, I'd be honest- I'd struggle.


However, if a lawyer asked me questions in French about my legal situation, and I responded in short-form answers, I could absolutely do that. Or if they asked me to check off a form or read a legal document. I could also do that.


What being a teacher confirmed to me was that learning styles don't just stay in the classroom. They transfer to our communication styles- our aptitudes in different languages, our strengths. And to paint one client as a lawyer with the same brush as another is just a detriment to your legal practice.


Which leads me to addressing the benefit of having law be a second career for you- or a career following another professional degree. You have that ability to understand other people's perspectives, because you have most likely been in their shoes and outside the "intimidating" legal structure. You've lived in the "real" world.


Even if you worked several years at a technical college, or engineering: that brings a science element to the table. You can help people with business start-ups, or Intellectual Property law.


A math brain? You'd love tax law.


It really does irritate me when people act like all law journeys are the same. They're not, they shouldn't be, and that's why it's important to highlight all the different skills and strengths people with non-traditional paths to the law can bring to legal practice.


So today's takeaway? While your undergraduate/professional degree can dictate where you lean in law, it's not an absolute career-ender before you even start your career. All it does, in my opinion, is demonstrate what sorts of areas of law you might be partial to once you're called to the bar.


Want to explore different areas of law? That's what law school organizations/electives are for. If you end up in something completely different than your undergraduate area, so be it. Law firms understand people change their mind. As long as you demonstrate why the change occurred, and are able to market it effectively as providing skills other people don't bring to the table, you have a straight path forward.


Don't be afraid to apply to law school, and don't discount yourself out of law school before you've even started.


Stay safe, kids, and have a good 2020 holiday break.


xx


Lauren


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