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Column: If only Duke had pre-law courses

God decided to take the devil to court and settle their differences once and for all.

When Satan heard this, he laughed and said, "And where do you think you're going to find a lawyer?"


I used to find those jokes funny, then I became a law student and now I want a little respect for the profession that protects your rights from bad government, greedy corporations, cheating individuals and, most of all, other lawyers.


But seriously, you don't realize how rough we lawyers, law students and pre-laws have it; the doctors and pre-meds have it easy.

I came to Duke dreaming of being a pre-med. I was rudely awakened by the miserable experience of BIO 25. I self-selected out of pre-med, realizing that if I did not have the patience for a clinically depressing class, I probably wouldn't have the patience for a clinically depressed patient. Duke (and BIO 25) probably saved a life.

A thorough career development office, with a watchful eye over the pre-meds, is to be expected from a school with top-tier natural sciences and a top-tier medical school. The introductory meetings for freshmen, the diligence of the pre-med advisors (between Sandy Tuthill and Kay Singer I was prepared to be a walking, talking pre-med bulletin board), the efforts to direct students into the correct preparatory courses and the advice to pursue interests and majors that were not in the sciences (no one wants a personal physician with the people skills of a textbook) were impressive and went beyond my expectations.

It's time for Duke to start doing the same for its pre-law students, because a law school education does not start with an LSAT prep course. Let me be the 1,000th law student to tell you: The LSAT, while immensely helpful in encouraging the kind of thinking law schools demand, is woefully insufficient in terms of the preparation you need for the first day of law school. The problem for a lot of Dukies, is that the decision to try law school is too often a default for the non-corporate, non-medical, non-natural sciences, non-engineer, non-political sycophant.

It's academically unhealthy to default into an in-depth study of logic, writing and argument. Students learn snippets of the skills it takes to be a law student in every class--but Duke, like most universities, needs to focus these skills into a course that more directly relates to law. A course that emphasizes the tactics of making a seamless argument (written and oral) and also encourages the logical comparison of principles (not numbers) would be a great first step. Some might call it "too vocational" for a liberal arts school. Think of it more like a lab. No, not a BIO 25 lab; this would be practical.

This kind of preparation is vital and sorely lacking for pre-laws. Pre-meds spend hours with advisors and courses to help them conquer the imposing MCAT (although, ask any student if its easier to memorize than theorize, and you'll get a resounding "yes"--perhaps this is why doctors and lawyers don't get along-we have to reason and analyze, but because doctors save lives they receive admiration for their intelligence and are not compared to a particular carnivorous fish). Pre-laws pick a LSAT testing center and fork over $1000 to Kaplan.

Pre-laws do have one great ally: Dean Gerald Wilson. Duke has a top-notch law-preparation program for students who have already decided to take the LSAT and have already mapped-out a potential career in the law. I am sure that I owe part of my acceptance at the University of Michigan School of Law to Dean Wilson and his staff. Ask any pre-law in his first year of law school and he will sing the praises of Wilson's office: They are always ready, willing and able.

But Wilson cannot do it alone: He's only one man. Last time U.S. News and World Report made a pronouncement, Duke Law School was a formidable school. Another way to foster a better pre-law system at Duke could be done through increased partnership with the Law School.

For starters, let students sit in on a class and see the Socratic method in action. The typical vision of the law, unfortunately shaped by stereotypes and bad television-Law & Order and The Wire, yes; The Practice, Ally McBeal and The Guardian, no. Can a student arrange this kind of interaction on his own? Yes, but considering that so many Duke students will be treading down the pre-law path, something institutional-from freshman year forward-is necessary.

"[The LSAT] provides a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills...." That is from the homepage of the Law School Admission Council, administrator of the LSAT. It sounds innocent enough, until you sit down for your first LSAT prep class, workbook assignment or practice test and realize that choosing to study law as a default is means to an end.

That quote from the LSAC's homepage makes law sound like something for everyone--no one wants to think that they have trouble with reading and reasoning. Most people do not reason so well and probably should not be attending any law school.

The insufficiency of legal preparation at our universities encourages the personal and professional hazard of sending unprepared people headfirst into law school. Surely anyone can stumble through and be an ambulance chaser, but we to encourage that like we need to encourage unlicensed, back-room medicine. Thorough college preparation could cure America of two evils: the glut of lawyers and the glut of lawyer jokes.


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