Interested in attending law school? Take time to consider your strengths, goals, and motivations: then learn what law school is like and how to prepare for it.
What is a law degree?
A Juris Doctor (J.D.), sometimes referred to as a Doctor of Jurisprudence, is the academic credential awarded to law school graduates. A J.D. can lead to a range of law-related careers in government, business, higher education, communications, and numerous other fields. Law school graduates are administrators, teachers, librarians, and business managers as well as advocates, judges, and politicians. A J.D. is a general, professional degree that qualifies graduates to sit for a state bar exam and to become licensed to practice law within that jurisdiction. Graduates can practice any area of law with the exception of patent law, which requires a technical undergraduate major and a passing score on an additional patent bar exam.
What is law school like?
Law school can be intense, stressful, and competitive. The American Bar Association (ABA) consequently permits full-time students to work no more than twenty hours per week. ABA-approved law schools generally require three years of full-time study to earn the Juris Doctor (J.D.) or four years of part-time study (when available).
The first year:
The case method approach
The "case method" is what first-year law students are likely to find least familiar. By focusing on the underlying principles that shape the law's approach to different situations, you will learn to distinguish among subtly different legal results and to identify the critical factors that determine a particular outcome. Once these distinctions are mastered, you should be able to apply this knowledge to new situations.
The case method involves the detailed examination of a number of related judicial opinions that describe an area of law. You will also learn to apply the same critical analysis to legislative materials and scholarly articles. The role of the law professor is to provoke and stimulate. For a particular case, he or she may ask questions designed to explore the facts presented, to determine the legal principles applied in reaching a decision, and to analyze the method of reasoning used. In this way, the professor encourages you to relate the case to others and to distinguish it from those with similar but inapplicable precedents. In order to encourage you to learn to defend your reasoning, the professor may adopt a position contrary to the holding of the case.
Because this process places much of the burden of learning on the student, classroom discussions can be exciting. They are also demanding. However uninformed, unprepared, or puzzled you may be, you will be expected to participate in these discussions.
The first-year curriculum
- Civil procedure—the process of adjudication in the United States, i.e., jurisdiction and standing to sue, motions and pleadings, pretrial procedure, the structure of a lawsuit, and appellate review of trial results.
- Constitutional law—the legislative powers of the federal and state governments, and questions of civil liberties and constitutional history, including detailed study of the Bill of Rights and constitutional freedoms.
- Contracts—the nature of enforceable promises and rules for determining appropriate remedies in case of nonperformance.
- Criminal law and criminal procedure—bases of criminal responsibility, the rules and policies for enforcing sanctions against individuals accused of committing offenses against the public order and well-being, and the rights guaranteed to those charged with criminal violations.
- Legal method—students' introduction to the organization of the American legal system and its processes.
- Legal writing—research and writing component of most first-year programs; requires students to research and write memoranda dealing with various legal problems.
- Property law—concepts, uses, and historical developments in the treatment of land, buildings, natural resources, and personal objects.
- Torts—private wrongs, such as acts of negligence, assault, and defamation, that violate obligations of the law.
How can I learn more?
The activities and resources below can help you explore your interest in law school.
- Complete the Pre-Law Self-Assessment
- Subscribe to the Pre-law Listserv to learn about upcoming events, scholarship opportunities, and important updates. Send an email request to pre-law advising at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Sit in on a real law school course at Penn State Law. See Visitation Schedule to reserve a day and time.
- Meet admissions officers from various law schools during Graduate & Professional School Week held in October every year.
- Attend a free LSAC Law School Recruitment Forum held in major cities around the country
- Examine case books and other readings in the Penn State University Bookstore.
- Join a student organization:
- Learn about financial aid options
- Read about changes in legal education and in the legal market (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.)
- Apply for the Explore Law at Penn State program
- Apply for the Widener Jurist Academy
- Request an attorney as a mentor in the College of the Liberal Arts’ Attorney Mentorship Program
- Check out the Pre-Law Resources in Penn State’s Social Sciences Library (102 Paterno Library)
- Get involved in summer pre-law programs
- Frequently check the Penn State Pre-Law Advising website for upcoming events!