In the jumbled minds of many students, political science equals pre-law. Defaulting to law school, though, can be a mistake.
Political science as a synonym for pre-law is a dirty societal construct. It’s fine time this construct is disposed of.
Students go to law school for understandable reasons, some more noble than others. Law draws students because of its prestige. It draws those who have a passion for order, for organized, challenging debate. It draws those who have penchants for summer houses on Martha’s Vineyard and winter houses in Aspen.
Lawyers have a prominent place in our culture. We’ve seen what Denny Crane on “Boston Legal” and “Jack McCoy” on Law and Order do from day to day.
“One thinks one knows what lawyers do,” said Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings.
A career in law might seem more stable than say, a career in academia, he said – not to mention more glamorous.
Some students may feel the tug of jurisprudence because they want to get away from Detroit and work in Washington or New York. That motivation is a little more legitimate.
According to the National Association for Law Placement, there were 2,255 New York law firm job openings in 2005 – up from 1,893 in 2000 and 1,491 in 1995.
It’s slightly less promising in Washington. There were 880 job opportunities in 2005, down from the 945 openings in 2000.
Detroit only had 70 job openings in 2005, seven less than in 2000 and 23 less than in 1995. Of the 41 cities included in the NALP data, Detroit – along with Jacksonville – offered the fewest law firm jobs in comparison to its population in 2005. No wonder we’re leaving in droves.
But that dream job in Boston or Chicago might not turn out to be anything like what many students were dreaming about. Disillusionment is an often an unpleasant reality for both students with TV-lawyer aspirations and those with something else in mind.
‘I want to go to law school, but I don’t want to be a lawyer.’
There are a number of undergraduate political science concentrators who are guilty of it. Vindicating themselves from the nasty stereotype attorneys have in many circles, some students aiming for law school say it’s only the legal education they’re after.
Some say this is silly. Some say it’s fine. But will law school really take you where you want to go if it’s not an office decorated with towers of papers about tort reform?
Law School Prof. Gavin Clarkson, who went to law school never intending to practice law, said having a law degree is never a bad thing.
“At a minimum,” he said in an e-mail interview, “going to law school helps someone develop a very useful way of thinking about and analyzing problems.”
But three years of contracts, torts and property to develop a useful way of thinking? Those who pursue law for this reason must view happiness as a secondary virtue. That’s not to say a law career doesn’t make a hefty chunk of urban dwellers fat and happy, but it’s not for everyone.
Law School Prof. Phoebe Ellsworth, who doesn’t have a law degree, knows students who’ve thrown in the towel. She explained why some don’t make it through the 3-year program.
“Law students have a change of heart because they hate law school,” Ellsworth said in an e-mail interview. “It is not to everyone’s taste.”
Edie Goldenberg, professor of political science and former LSA dean, has known law students “who drop out, law students who grit their teeth and finish even though they don’t enjoy it, law students who graduate and never want to practice law and, of course, law students who love it, thrive and never look back.”
It’s hard to tell if you fit into one of these groups before entering law school, but professors like Goldenberg and Ellsworth think it’s important to consider where your interests are before jumping into law.
Ellsworth said she thinks it’s “silly” to apply to law school without interest in a law career.
Scott Turow, the author of One L, an account of his first year at Harvard Law, was 26 before he decided he was interested in law school. Even after making the decision to switch careers, he still had doubts when faced with the strenuous curriculum.
In the first chapter, Turow writes, “Doubt – about themselves, about what they are doing – is a malady familiar to first-year law students and I arrived already afflicted. I was not sure that I was up to that tradition of excellence.”
Law school takes perseverance. Even if you like it.
Goldenberg said she thinks many political science majors, who may not be truly interested in law, default to law school. Goldenberg said she has known students who feel pressure from parents and others who don’t understand the purpose of studying political science if law school isn’t on the horizon.
“This is narrow thinking,” she said.
Although a law degree is certainly useful, Goldenberg said, it’s not necessary for those hoping for jobs in politics or government.
“I hate to see students pursue law when they don’t really have any interest in it,” she said.
There are plenty of other options.
Polisci isn’t a dead-end street
Among the options for political science majors Goldenberg listed were careers in government, non-profit organizations, business, international relations, consulting, intelligence, teaching, research, journalism, politics and polling.
Or soccer. Mia Hamm, the famed women’s soccer player, was a political science major at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After obtaining a political science degree, students should look to “graduate school in political science or public policy or journalism or business or education or social work or public health or urban planning – as well as law,” Goldenberg said.
She said she thinks undergraduates know little about the fruits of graduate school. Only some are fortunate enough to benefit from “unusual mentoring,” she said.
Just how unusual is it? How many students are getting out of the more mainstream mindset and into graduate school?
The answer is probably close to none.
Hutchings has been at the University for 10 years and he said he has only met with three or four political science students who went on to graduate school.
Nearly all the recommendation letters he writes, of course, are for law school.