Legal studies refer to an academic endeavor focused on learning laws, learning how to apply those laws, and learning how to process transactions and legal claims on behalf of clients. Though most people think of law school when they hear the term "legal studies," legal studies can be pursued in high school, during undergraduate work, law school, reading for the bar, and at professional or career schools that train paralegals.
High School Legal Studies
A trend in education, particularly among charter schools, is the law-themed curriculum. Whether a student intends to pursue legal studies in higher education, a law-themed high school can offer benefits that will aid students when they arrive at college. Such programs are generally analytic and writing intensive. Some examples of high schools with law-themed curriculums are Sacramento Charter High School, Natomas Pacific Pathways Preparatory School and Grant Union High School in Sacramento.
Undergraduate Legal Studies
Pre-law was once a common major for students eying law school. In modern education, pre-law is a rare major because of its lack of utility in the job market. Many of the classes that would have been part of pre-law coincide with majors such as political science, history, economics and English. Neither law schools nor the American Bar Association recommend or require a particular major to gain acceptance to law school. Even fine arts majors are eligible. Though certainly some history and political science classes could be tremendously helpful to a law student, they are not necessary. The key to law school admission is excellent writing skills, a good score on the Law School Admissions Test, an excellent grade point average and proving the student is a well-rounded person.
In the United States, law school is a three-year endeavor (four years for evening division courses). In the first year, students focus on broad basic law classes such as evidence, contracts, torts and civil procedure. During the second year, more specialized courses are taken, as well as practical courses such as practice clinics. The third year is spent taking additional specialized courses, usually geared toward the practice area in which the lawyer hopes to practice. Many students study abroad, clerk for law firms or courts and take internships during summers and the third year. After law school, new lawyers spend about six months, depending on the state, studying for and awaiting results for the bar exam. Legal studies continue during a lawyer's career by way of mandatory continuing legal education credits. After the award of a juris doctorate, some lawyers go on for a fourth year of law school to earn an LL.M or master of laws. Though it is called a master's, it is in fact a post-doctoral degree. LL.M students focus on a highly specialized area of law, with the intention of either teaching or specializing in the particular area. For example, the tax LL.M is among the most common.
Prospective law students should look for accredited law schools. Most law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association, and every state will allow a graduate from those schools to sit for its bar exam. However, some law schools are only accredited by regional or state bar associations, which limits the lawyer to practicing only in that state. It is much easier to be admitted to a non-ABA school, but the career limitations can be stifling.
Across the United States, many professional or career schools are private and for- profit, for example Virginia College. Though many are skeptical of such schools because of the high tuition, the schools do offer practical, hands-on training and certification as a paralegal in a shorter than usual time frame. Junior colleges sometimes offer paralegal studies, but those programs are longer than career schools and require a broader curriculum. However, tuition is much less expensive than at career schools.
Reading For the Bar
An unusual form of legal studies is reading for the bar. Few states continue to offer this option of legal study for prospective lawyers. To read for the bar, a lawyer does not attend law school. Instead, he serves as an apprentice to a lawyer who commits to training the student in the law. Specific time frames are mandated by the particular state bar association, and the would-be lawyer must still pass the bar exam. This is a difficult path to becoming a lawyer.
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