Keith Burgess-Jackson, "Advice for Prospective Law Students"

Keith Burgess-Jackson, "Advice for Prospective Law Students"

My academic background. I earned my baccalaureate degree in political science at the University of Michigan-Flint in 1979. My minor fields of study were economics and history. I attended law school at Wayne State University in Detroit, earning both an M.A. degree (in history) and a J.D. degree in 1983. While in law school, I clerked for a legal-services agency and later for a small firm. Before attending graduate school (in philosophy) at the University of Arizona, where I earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, I sat for (and passed) the Michigan Bar Examination and was admitted to the Michigan bar (both state and federal courts). I had no intention of practicing law at the time, but I wanted to keep my options open. Later, while in graduate school in Tucson, I passed the Arizona Bar Examination, was admitted to the bar (again, both state and federal courts), and practiced law. After receiving my Ph.D. degree (with a dissertation on constitutional interpretation), I began teaching philosophy, first at Texas A & M University and then, beginning in August 1989, at UTA, where I am now a tenured associate professor. I teach courses in philosophy of law and several other subjects, mostly in axiology (a fancy name for value theory). Many of my publications are on legal topics (or topics that have a legal dimension), such as suicide, right-to-farm statutes, relevance, defamation, capital punishment, rape, and the nature of law (legal theory). If you are interested in the details of these publications or in other aspects of my background, or if you want to see a photograph of Sophie and Ginger (my canine companions), please visit my homepage by clicking on the appropriate line at the end of this document. You can send e-mail to me ( by clicking on the mailbox icon immediately below.

1. Is a particular major either required or recommended by law schools? No. Students find this hard to believe, but it is true. My fellow law students at Wayne State University majored in business, English, art history, philosophy, political science, history, and biology, among other subjects. What law schools want is intelligent, highly motivated, analytical, critical, articulate students. No particular substantive knowledge or background is required or presupposed. Of course, it helps if one knows the history of our legal and political systems, as well as basic economic principles, but this sort of knowledge is typically acquired in government and civics courses at both the high school and the college level. Law schools want students with a broad base of knowledge--a liberal education. There is plenty of time to specialize once you get to law school. Before then, and even during the early stages of law school, you should be a generalist. Think of your undergraduate education as the foundation for the edifice (career) you hope to build. The broader and sturdier the foundation, the more secure (and valuable) the resulting structure.

2. Since I have to major in something, what is best? The best preparation for law school (and for the practice of law) is . . . philosophy. I say that without the slightest hesitation--and remember, I studied political science, economics, history, and philosophy as well as law. The reason philosophy is best is obvious (once you think about it). The skills needed by law students and attorneys--careful analysis of texts, sensitivity to vagueness and ambiguity (these differ!), extraction of principles from cases, argument (often for propositions that one does not personally accept), criticism of arguments made by others, and the articulation of difficult concepts--are precisely those that are inculcated and refined in the study of philosophy. Both philosophers and lawyers are trained to analyze, argue, and criticize--not to mention speak and write. Thus, the skills that one acquires in one area readily transfer to the other. This affinity has not gone unnoticed by others, even by those who have no particular love of philosophy. Here is federal appellate judge (and former law professor) Richard A. Posner:

[T]he methods of analytic philosophy and of legal reasoning--the making of careful distinctions and definitions, the determination of logical consistency through the construction and examination of hypothetical cases, the bringing of buried assumptions to the surface, the breaking up of a problem into manageable components, the meticulous exploration of the implications of an opponent's arguments--are mainly the same. (Richard A. Posner, Overcoming Law [Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1995], 9) (Note that Posner is discussing analytic philosophy. That is my concern as well. I make no claim about the usefulness of Continental [or other types of] philosophy to the study of law. Note also that Posner is not necessarily endorsing philosophy, as I am.)

Since you have to major in something in order to earn your baccalaureate degree, philosophy is the natural choice.

3. What if I can't, or decide not to, major in philosophy? Are there alternatives? Yes. You can minor in philosophy. See the Undergraduate Catalog for the requirements for a minor, which are less stringent than those for a major. You might major in English, history, or political science for example, and minor in philosophy. The more philosophy courses you take, the better off you will be in law school and in the practice of law.

4. What if I can't, or decide not to, minor in philosophy? Am I out of luck? In that case, you should take as many philosophy courses (and read as much philosophy) as you can.

5. Which philosophy courses should I take? Any course we offer will serve you well. Logic courses are devoted directly to the development of analytical, critical, and argumentative skills. Logic may seem to have nothing to do with law, but that misses the point. The point is that it will teach you skills that will benefit you in law school (and later). The same is true of other philosophy courses you take. A course in the history of philosophy will have little or no direct bearing on anything that is said or done in law school, but by studying the arguments and analyses of philosophers, even those long dead, one learns how to detect fallacies (errors in reasoning), argue for claims, solve intellectual problems, and make useful distinctions. Think skills, not substance. Even a Philosophy of Law course will likely have no direct bearing on law. You might read judicial opinions and law-related essays, to be sure, but the aim is to develop philosophical skills rather than to convey legal knowledge. As I like to put it, "If you learn any law in here, it will be by accident." Another course you may wish to consider, and that I recommend, is Latin. Many commonly used legal terms, such as "res ipsa loquitur" (the thing speaks for itself), "habeas corpus" (you have the body), and "feræ naturæ" (of a wild nature or disposition) are of Latin origin, as you can see by consulting any legal dictionary.

6. If I major or minor in philosophy, won't I lack substantive legal knowledge that is necessary for law school? No. One of the gravest misconceptions of nonlawyers, including some who hope to become lawyers, is that law school teaches substantive knowledge, such as what the law is in a particular field (e.g., bankruptcy, taxation, corporate law, or domestic relations). While some substantive knowledge is undoubtedly conveyed in law-school courses, for the most part the objectives are to teach you (a) the origin, structure, and functions of law; (b) the basic legal principles and procedures of law; and (c) how to go about answering legal questions. Like philosophy courses, law-school courses are skill-oriented rather than knowledge-oriented; or rather, the knowledge that you acquire in them is knowledge-how rather than knowledge-that. To put it pithily, law school teaches you to think like a lawyer. If and when you study for a bar examination, you will learn (perhaps "absorb" is a better word) substantive law. Many lawyers learn particular bodies of law gradually, once they become licensed and begin to practice. To use a computer analogy, law school formats the mind to prepare it to receive data. The data are entered during study for the bar examination, during law practice, and during continuing-legal-education courses (which in many states are mandatory).

7. What if I change my mind and don't go to law school? Will majoring in philosophy hurt my career? Until now, I have assumed that you intend to become a licensed attorney. If you have any doubts about this, then you need to consider the alternative employment opportunities for a philosophy major. There is, as you know, no "philosophical career" per se, except as an academic, and the job prospects are dim even there (although they are expected to improve in the next decade or so). It seems to me, however, that the skills one acquires during the study of philosophy are useful in any number of areas, ranging from business to politics to religion to art to science to academia to the military. Of course, not every employer sees it this way. In part, this is because philosophy has a reputation (undeserved!) for being irrelevant, arcane, and (merely) speculative. The prevailing image of the philosopher is that of the bearded guru sitting atop a mountain, dispensing advice to all comers. But as I have been at pains to point out, philosophy inculcates valuable--hence, marketable--cognitive skills, skills that, when supplemented by specialized knowledge, are all the more valuable. A recent philosophy graduate says that his philosophical skills surprised and impressed his employer. I am not saying, nor could I, that you will get the job you seek by majoring in philosophy. I am saying that the skills you acquire in your philosophy courses will stand you in good stead whatever you choose to do with yourself. And let us not forget the ideal of the learned, multifaceted person. I assume that this ideal has some weight in your thinking and some motivational force for you.

8. Is there anything else you recommend as preparation for law school? Yes. Read as much as you can about the United States Supreme Court (or other courts), about particular areas of law (such as divorce, abortion, privacy, capital punishment, antitrust, and homosexual rights), about great attorneys and jurists, and about the history of our legal and political systems (as well as how they are related). The more you know, and the more sharply honed your reasoning and analytical skills, the better you will do in law school. One book that I recommend wholeheartedly is Scott Turow's One L (1977), which is about the first year at Harvard Law School. This book, the author of which went on to become a best-selling novelist (he wrote Presumed Innocent [1987], The Burden of Proof [1990], Pleading Guilty [1993], The Laws of Our Fathers [1996], and Personal Injuries [1999]), will give you an idea of what law school is like.

9. Should I take a preparation course for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)? There is no single (or simple) answer to this question. It is like asking "Should I join a marathon-training program to prepare for the marathon I hope to run?" It is unlikely that the training program will hurt you, in the sense of causing you to run slower than you otherwise would. How much it helps you, however, depends on how much you put into it. Whether it is worth the cost in time and effort depends on how important it is for you to go faster. If it is very important for you to run a four-hour marathon, say, then you may be willing to pay a great deal to increase the likelihood of doing so. It may be that you could, physically, run a three-hour marathon but are not willing to pay the price. Going that fast may require a training regimen that alters your diet, disrupts your sleep pattern, forces you to give up certain valued social activities, even drains your savings account (to pay for the training program). When students ask whether a particular LSAT preparation course is "worth it," therefore, I cannot answer. Judgments of worthiness are value judgments; ultimately they must be made by the person whose values are at stake. What I can say is that whether it is worth it depends on (a) what resources you have at your disposal, (b) how important it is for you to get a certain score on the exam, and (c) how likely it is that the course will help you get the score you need. I will also say this: I taught an LSAT preparation course several times for The University of Arizona while I was a graduate student there. The techniques I taught in that course--which, to my knowledge, are typical--are quite valuable.

Recommended reading (in chronological order):

Turow, Scott. One L. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1978.

Kennedy, Duncan. Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Polemic Against the System. Cambridge, MA: Afar, 1983.

Kennedy, Duncan. "The Political Significance of the Structure of the Law School Curriculum." Seton Hall Law Review 14 (1983): 1-16.

White, James Boyd. "The Study of Law as an Intellectual Activity: A Talk to Entering Students." Chap. 3 in Heracles' Bow: Essays on the Rhetoric and Poetics of the Law, 49-59. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

"A New List of Recommended Reading for Prospective Law Students." Michigan Law Review 83 (February 1985): 663-9.

Kennedy, Duncan. "Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy." Chap. 2 in The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique, rev. ed., edited by David Kairys, 38-58. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Torrey, Morrison; Jackie Casey; and Karin Olson. "Teaching Law in a Feminist Manner: A Commentary from Experience." Harvard Women's Law Journal 13 (spring 1990): 87-135.

Scales, Ann C. "Surviving Legal De-Education: An Outsider's Guide." Vermont Law Review 15 (summer 1990): 139-64.

Gordon, James D., III. "How Not to Succeed in Law School." The Yale Law Journal 100 (April 1991): 1679-706.

Schlockverse, Ridgely, III [Kenneth Lasson]. "Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pierson v. Post [A Ditty Dedicated to Freshman Law Students, Confused on the Merits]." Nova Law Review 17 (winter 1993): 857-65.

Schafran, Lynn Hecht. "Is the Law Male? Let Me Count the Ways." Chicago-Kent Law Review 69 (1993): 397-411.

Miller, Carolyn Lisa. "`What a Waste. Beautiful, Sexy Gal. Hell of a Lawyer.': Film and the Female Attorney." Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 4 (1994): 203-32.

Lasson, Kenneth. "Lawyering Askew: Excesses in the Pursuit of Fees and Justice." Boston University Law Review 74 (November 1994): 723-75.

Schechter, Roger E. "Changing Law Schools to Make Less Nasty Lawyers." Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 10 (winter 1996): 367-94.

Uphoff, Rodney J.; James J. Clark; and Edward C. Monahan. "Preparing the New Law Graduate to Practice Law: A View from the Trenches." University of Cincinnati Law Review 65 (winter 1997): 381-422.

Becker, Mary. "Questions Women (and Men) Should Ask When Selecting a Law School." Wisconsin Women's Law Journal 11 (summer 1997): 417-30.

Costello, Margaret A. "Women in the Legal Profession: You've Come a Long Way--or Have You?" Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University Law Review 3 (fall 1997): 909-15.

Simon, William H. The Practice of Justice: A Theory of Lawyers' Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Floyd, Timothy W. "The Practice of Law as a Vocation or Calling." Fordham Law Review 66 (March 1998): 1405-24.

Young, Sarah W. "The Calling of the Law." American Journal of Family Law 12 (spring 1998): 30-9.

"Making Docile Lawyers: An Essay on the Pacification of Law Students." Harvard Law Review 111 (May 1998): 2027-44.

Galanter, Marc. "The Faces of Mistrust: The Image of Lawyers in Public Opinion, Jokes, and Political Discourse." University of Cincinnati Law Review 66 (1998): 805-45.

Torrey, Morrison; Jennifer Ries; and Elaine Spiliopoulos. "What Every First-Year Female Law Student Should Know." Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 7 (1998): 267-311.

Gibson, Geoffrey. "Once Were Lawyers." The Australian Law Journal 73 (January 1999): 52-71.

Brown, Jennifer Gerarda. "'To Give Them Countenance': The Case for a Women's Law School." Harvard Women's Law Journal 22 (spring 1999): 1-37.

Maddox, Hugh. "Lawyers: The Aristocracy of Democracy or 'Skunks, Snakes, and Sharks'?" Cumberland Law Review 29 (1999): 323-46.

Nagorney, Kara Anne. "A Noble Profession? A Discussion of Civility Among Lawyers." Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 12 (summer 1999): 815-27.

Silver, Charles, and Frank B. Cross. "What's Not to Like About Being a Lawyer?" Review of Lawyer: A Life of Counsel and Controversy, by Arthur L. Liman. The Yale Law Journal 109 (April 2000): 1443-503.

Kidder, William C. "Does the LSAT Mirror or Magnify Racial and Ethnic Differences in Educational Attainment? A Study of Equally Achieving 'Elite' College Students." California Law Review 89 (July 2001): 1055-124.