How the Law Can Help You: Creating a Pre-law Program in Your History Department

If you are chairing a history department, you may feel unseen, unappreciated, or even under attack in this moment when college enrollment is dropping and interest in the humanities seems to be perpetually in decline. Creating a pre-law program can be an excellent way to increase course enrollment, draw positive attention from senior leadership, and attract donors, all while better preparing students for legal careers.

Pre-law advising and support

In my department, there are four parts of the pre-law program—pre-law advising, a pre-law club, a pre-law minor, and a mock trial program—that collectively serve students from all majors. Our pre-law advisor works to assist students in practical ways as they contemplate a legal career and apply to law school. The pre-law club he supervises meets monthly, hearing from practicing attorneys, learning about the admission process from deans of law schools, and talking to law students to understand what to expect once students enter law school. The club also helps students form a supportive cohort as they study for the LSAT and prepare their application materials. In addition, the pre-law advisor is a resource for faculty when they have questions about recommending courses, writing reference letters, or editing personal statements for law school applications.

Designing a pre-law curriculum

Creating a pre-law minor is another good way to prepare students for various legal careers and it can help increase your course enrollments. Start with the American Bar Association’s recommendations. The ABA calls for a broad understanding of history; a fundamental understanding of political thought, human behavior, and diverse cultures; and critical thinking, research, writing, and editing skills—in short, all things history courses are in an excellent position to teach. If your department includes multiple disciplines, all the better; look to political science for help with teaching the contemporary American political system, to sociology for help understanding human social interactions, or to international relations to explore international institutions. If your department or college includes philosophy, include courses in symbolic logic, which can help develop complex reading skills and encourage the development of personal ethics.

Start with your department and its existing course offerings to see which courses already teach core skills, values, and knowledge, then consult with other department chairs in related majors, particularly if you are planning on including some of their courses in the minor. If your students have some flexibility in their general education requirements, recommend or require classes that teach logic, public speaking, math, and financial skills. When it comes to advertising your program, remind students (and their parents) that while any major can prepare them for law school, history majors are among the highest scoring students on the LSATs and highest earning attorneys.

Exposing students to the law

Another ABA recommended area is exposure to the law. Consider adding a Mock Trial team. In Mock Trial, students work through a fictional legal case with rules of evidence, case law, witness statements, and exhibits and participate in mock trials. The largest undergraduate Mock Trial program is run by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA). Mock Trial encourages students to develop recommended skills, including analysis and critical thinking, oral communication and listening, task organization, and collaboration—in a fun, competitive environment. Just as importantly, Mock Trial offers students an opportunity to see if they enjoy practicing law before they invest thousands of dollars in law school tuition, or whether they would prefer working with the law in a different way or perhaps an entirely different career path.

I recommend opening up your Mock Trial to all students, regardless of their interest in a legal career. Our students take an “Intro to Law” course during their first year on the team and enroll in “Mock Trial Competition” (1 credit, 3 contact hours)—in our department, students can register for the course as a history or political science credit. Students from a variety of backgrounds make for a strong team—we have benefited from students in history, political science, communication, psychology, sociology, and theater. Even if Mock Trial students never pursue a career related to the law, they graduate with an understanding of the American legal system, an important component of citizenship.

Beyond your curriculum, here are some suggestions that will strengthen your Mock Trial Program

• Ask students to help sell the program—they’ll be more persuasive than you are.

• Find lawyers (ideally civil and criminal attorneys) who are willing to answer your legal questions.

• Consider cross-listing your courses to attract as many majors as possible

• Invite donors and other supporters to watch your team compete

In addition to a Mock Trial team, internships with local law firms, solicitor’s offices, or public defenders expose students to the day-to-day work of attorneys practicing in different areas of the law. Before they invest in law school, students should understand not only the theoretical practice of different areas of the law, but also the daily work of attorneys in different specialties—to the surprise of students, most attorneys spend relatively little, if any, time in the courtroom.

An added bonus of building a legal internship program is that impressive student interns serve as outreach to local law firms, who can support your programs in other ways. If you don’t already have a department internship coordinator, create the position. That faculty member should work with your career center to make sure your department complies with the laws and institutional policies that govern internships.

Additional Suggestions

Some final advice as you consider implementing one or all of these programs:

• Assess what’s already been done—particularly if you’re in a small program, there may have been fragmented earlier efforts that you can build on or resurrect. A lot of the groundwork in my program was laid by colleagues before I became involved.

• Find a supporter—someone in your administration that understands the value of a strong pre-law program and will support it through curricular reform assistance, budget advocacy, donor recruitment, and by pitching the program to other senior administrators.

Here are some practical tips:

• Create promotional materials. You’ll need a dedicated section of your website, brochures for students and parents, and flyers for various events and for your admissions staff to share with area high schools. Ask for help here—I was surprised to find that our development office will take our content and put it into nice looking materials, saving me hours of frustration. For the sake of efficiency, insist on writing your own copy and choose any photographs, but let them do what they want with logos, font, and other stylistic matters.

• Draw positive attention to your students’ success. Invite donors, deans, and other stakeholders to watch your Mock Trial team compete. Tweet out your pre-law students’ awards, internships, scholarships, and law school acceptances.

Getting the resources you need:

• Ask for money. If you’re like me, you’re so used to making do with very little, it feels like the best way to get support is to propose running your program with existing resources. But the reverse can be true. The first time a senior administrator told me that no one would respect what I was trying to do if I didn’t ask for money to fund it, I didn’t believe him. To my surprise, he turned out to be right. Every time I’ve asked for money, I’ve gotten it, and that has led various stakeholders to feel personally invested in our program.

• Negotiate course releases for pre-law advisors, mock trial coaches, and internship supervisors—these activities take a lot of time. If you can’t do that, make sure faculty in these roles receive appropriate recognition during annual reviews and in the promotion or tenure process.

• When requesting funding or resources, connect what your program offers to your institution’s priorities—in my case, I brag about the truly impressive “retention, promotion, and graduation” statistics it produces, compared to the university as a whole.

Finally, a couple of caveats: our program is still a work in progress; and I am writing from the perspective of a chair of an interdisciplinary department at an underfunded public regional university. Don’t go it alone—our pre-law program reflects an ongoing collaboration between three faculty members: a pre-law advisor and the two of us who co-teach Intro to Law and Mock Trial, and we all contribute additional courses to the minor. Developing and maintaining a strong program needs to be a team endeavor in order to handle the workload and benefit from group brainstorming and the sharing of ideas. Also consider potential allies, department realities, and resources at your disposal as you shape a pre-law program that serves both your department and your students.


Additional Linked Resources

For pre-law advisors:

• Read The Roles and Responsibilities of Pre-Law Advisors.

• Apply for access to the resources of the Law School Admission Council. (You will need a letter from your department chair or dean.)

Designing a pre-law program:

• Read the ABA’s recommended undergraduate coursework.

Creating a Mock Trial team:

• Read the American Mock Trial Association’s (AMTA) New Team Handbook.

• If you need help with trial procedure, purchase Winning Objections: A Mock Trial Handbook.


Featured image: Supreme Court of the United States, Creative Commons, available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Supreme_Court.jpg.

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