A friend sent me a letter that he received recently from Wake Forest University, where his son is a sophomore. Actually, it came from the Law School, which was “excited to announce” a “Pre-Law Program for Undergraduates.” Last summer, the school offered a single course, “Legal Theory, Practice, and Communication.” It was such a hit that the school has now added a second summer prelaw class, “Advocacy, Debate, and the Law.”

Noble motives

The letter outlines a laudable premise: “The primary purpose of this Program is to show undergraduates what law school is like. Some college students in the past have applied to law school simply because they could not decide what else to do after graduation.”

So far, so good. The letter then acknowledges that law school “is now far too expensive to engage in a ‘test drive’ for a whole year. This Program gives  college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers.”

Again, so far, so good.

A worthy endeavor

Adequately informing undergraduates tracking themselves to law school is a vitally important educational mission that is long overdue. Colleges and universities have largely refrained from efforts to penetrate the confirmation bias of young people who think they’ll lead lives depicted in Law & Order, The Good Wife, and Suits. A legal career can be personally and professionally rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.

Wake Forest boasts that its program “gives college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers.” It’s nice to give undergraduates a taste of the Socratic method so it doesn’t upend them in law school. But other aspects are far more important.

Does the program include data on new graduates’ dismal job opportunities? For example, nine months after graduation, only 56 percent of the Wake Forest Law School class of 2011 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree — the same as the overall average for all law schools.

Likewise, does Wake Forest’s prelaw program cover the staggering six-figure debt that now burdens the vast majority of new attorneys generally, whose median starting salaries have fallen to $60,000? Does it discuss the widespread career dissatisfaction among practicing attorneys? Let’s hope so.

Troublesome turns

Assuming Wake Forest has, indeed, included these and other essential elements of a truly valuable prelaw curriculum, other aspects of the program suggest competing agendas at work.

Why does Wake Forest offer its prelaw program only in the summer — at a cost of $3,240 per course? (“An interested student would receive maximum benefit from enrolling in both courses,” the letter notes.) Why not offer a course that provides meaningful insights into law school and the profession during the regular academic year? And don’t tell me that professorial teaching loads have become too burdensome.

Another item gave me pause. The press release announcing the Wake Forest program included this enticing remark from the law professor who co-teaches the classes: “Since we will have gotten to know the students, we will also gladly write letters of recommendation about the student’s ability to do law school work.”

His colleague added this: “In fact, we are very excited that one of our students, who applied to law school this year with our help, was accepted at several top-ranked law schools.”

Those comments don’t neutralize student confirmation bias; they reinforce it.

Closing the deal

And then there’s this: The law school admissions office “will waive the $60.00 application fee for any student who attended the summer Program this year who later applies to Wake Forest Law School.” More applications — even from unqualified students — lower a school’s acceptance rate and thereby raise its U.S. News ranking.

But that’s not all. Again, directly from the press release: “[I]f that student is admitted and enrolls at Wake Forest law school, the student will receive a tuition credit for the first year equal to the amount spent for tuition in attending the summer program. That’s right—you could get the law school to pay you back for the money spent on tuition this year for the Summer Pre-Law Program!”

Here are the only words missing from the pitch: Act now while supplies last!

Something is amiss when the lines used to sell a prelaw education read like a late-night infomercial for steak knives.

2 thoughts on “PARDON MY CYNICISM

  1. While I think it would be very useful for an entering student to understand the difference between the law school classroom and, well, just about any undergraduate classroom, particularly those outside liberal arts where writing is not emphasized, it would be far better for prospective law students to spend some time working in a law firm to see if they like it. For there is little similarity between law school and practicing law. (I like practicing law, by the way.)

  2. I just came across your website this afternoon. I graduated from Wake Forest Law School in 1986. I think that the law school is simply trying to figure out ways to survive. It is ranked 35th this year by U.S. News & World Report. So in this bad legal economic market it is not going to have the sort of applicants who apply to the Ivies, Georgetown, Duke or U.Va. On the other hand, it has to keep up its reputation and not let just anybody in. It also has to make money for the university. It isn’t the “law school to go to if you want to practice in North Carolina” as it may have been 50 years ago, when everyone in N.C. went to UNC Chapel Hill or Wake. So it is trying to think “outside the box.” Since I graduated, the law school has added various programs to enhance its bottom line – it has added LL.M. and S.J.D. programs, to attract foreign students. It has added an M.A. in law, for people who want to know something about the law but who don’t want to practice. Right or wrong, the summer program is another entreprenurial move by the law school deans and faculty.

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