Like many psychology undergraduates, I knew I would probably have to continue my education to use my degree but did not know what type of education to pursue. A professor advised that studying psychology is excellent preparation for law school, and after taking a legal internship, I knew it was right for me. As predicted, my degree was very helpful, but there were still speed bumps along the way. For that reason, I am handing down lessons I learned so psychology undergrads who are interested in law school can be prepared for what lies ahead.
Why Studying Psychology Prepared Me for Law School
Research and Writing
Many people think lawyers’ work is about pounding fists on podiums and arguing in court. I did too. I was surprised when I got to law school, and no fist-pounding was required. Television dramas show exactly that—drama. In reality, arguments made in courtrooms are planned well in advance, based on solid research, and accompanied by (hopefully) well-written briefs. Further, some lawyers rarely go to court and focus on transactional practice (e.g., drafting contracts). Those lawyers research extensively to draft documents so their clients can avoid litigation.
Fortunately, I had research and writing experience before law school because my psychology degree required me to conduct an original experiment. I looked at past studies and predicted my own results based on how my experiment was similar or different. My first law school writing assignment was surprisingly similar. The professor provided fictional facts, and I was to predict how a judge would rule based on similar facts from real past cases. I had done this before, only the experiments I researched were now cases, and the results were now rulings. My undergraduate experience was invaluable in understanding the purpose and design of that first law school writing assignment.
Backing up Arguments
In designing my undergraduate project, it was important to predict results based on conclusions drawn from other studies. In other words, predictions had to be supported. The same was true in law school. In making arguments for a certain result, I had to give reasons why those arguments were sound such as similarities between my case and past cases or support in a statute’s language. Arguing that a result was not fair was never enough.
If a law student makes a that’s not fair argument, professors will say, "The judge does not care what you think is fair. The judge cares about what the law says she should do. You have to convince the judge that the law favors your position.” The easiest way to do this is to remember to use the word because, followed by your reasoning. This is one of the first lessons law students learn, and you will have an advantage having experienced this lesson as a psychology undergrad.
Why Law School Was Still Difficult
Arguing Both Sides
In writing undergraduate papers, I always argued my position without contemplating that another stance was plausible. For example, for my research project, I argued that students who took pretests before a quiz would do better than students who merely read study materials beforehand. Although I backed up my hypothesis with conclusions drawn from similar experiments, I certainly did not argue that students who took pretests would do worse than control group students, or that the two groups would do equally well. As such, when I began law school, the idea of arguing both for my propositions and against them did not come naturally. For that reason, I did not do so well on one of my first exercises. I did not anticipate both sides’ arguments and then determine a victor based on the strength of those arguments. I was confused and had no idea why I should write down why I might be wrong—wouldn’t that undercut my argument?
What I did not understand was that my professor did not care who I thought should win. My professor wanted me to apprise her of the relevant law and the strength of each side’s case. This was not a paper a judge would see; it was part of the research to be done before anyone set foot in court. It was exactly the type of assignment my future employer would give. Thus, although the argument I made may have been good, I did not provide my professor with the information she needed to draw her own conclusions about the case (e.g., whether to pursue litigation or settle with the opponent). She needed information about what the opponent might argue to make those decisions. A judge would be hearing both positions, and she needed to know what we would be up against.
The concise writing concept was another difficult aspect of law school. Unlike in college, where the goal was to hit minimum page limits, staying within maximum page limits was difficult in law school. I thought my first big assignment would be easy because it was restricted to only seven pages, but the page limit was not the blessing it seemed. I wondered how I could write everything the professor wanted with only seven pages.
The answer was simply to be concise, but learning to do so did not come easy. In particular, I practiced writing in an active, rather than passive, voice. For example, instead of writing, "The defendant was stopped by police,” I learned to write, "Police stopped the defendant,” turning six words into four. It surprised me to see how much I could pack into seven pages after proofreading for wordiness. However, learning to be concise takes time, and I still struggle with it. Had I worked on this in college, I might have better writing to hand in to my boss or a judge now.
Another law school speed bump was the use of jargon. Lawyers and judges have a knack for making things sound complex. This difficulty is especially pronounced at the beginning of law school, when legal concepts are so new. Even worse, you may have heard some terms before, but they could mean something different when used in a legal setting. These words and phrases are called terms of art.
For example, the first opinion I read in law school described a complaint as well-pleaded. I thought the judge was indicating that the plaintiff wrote well in the document that initiated the lawsuit. Not so. A wellpleaded complaint is one that "sufficiently sets forth a claim for relief ” (Garner, 2009, p. 324). When a professor asked what a well-pleaded complaint was in class, I was embarrassed in front of everyone for not having looked up the word in a legal dictionary beforehand. Therefore, you will need to look up words you do not know as well as words you think might have a different meaning to lawyers than laypeople.
What You Can Do Now to Prepare
Improve Your Writing Skills
Both in law school and afterward, writing will be a large chunk of your work. Your professors will expect you to know the basics, and they do not want to teach grammar or conciseness. Taking an undergrad research and writing class will help in this area. After conducting an independent experiment, you will be able to draw parallels between the research and writing you do for the study and the assignments you do in law school.
Learn to Think Critically
As an undergrad, I would sometimes get inklings that something in a story did not make sense, but I never asked questions, simply accepting what was said as true. In law school, I learned to question conclusions and the reasoning used to reach them by forcing myself to argue both sides of an issue. What seemed like strained arguments at first could be quite valuable, either because they were worthwhile arguments themselves or because they aided in brainstorming new ones.
Finally, to think critically, you have to know what your opponent is saying. As such, if you do not understand a term, look it up. You will need to know words not in your vocabulary at this time to make your point in a legal setting.
Complete an Internship
Although you may like the idea of becoming a lawyer and admire attorneys you know, you may not actually enjoy the work an attorney does. Therefore, you should become an intern to determine if being a lawyer is right for you.
A friend of mine completed such an internship and decided that she did not want to pursue law. She decided that she was better suited for a social work position because she wanted to counsel clients. Attorneys do this, but it is only a piece of the whole job, and she was not interested in other aspects such as research. Thankfully, she did not go through three years of law school only to find that she did not enjoy the work for which she had prepared. Interning is also an excellent way to network and make contacts. Be sure you intern somewhere that you would consider working in the future so that your contacts can put in a good word when the time comes for job-hunting.
Deciding whether and how to continue your education is difficult. If you are considering becoming an attorney, know that your psychology degree will not go to waste. Your experience in research, writing, and reasoning will prove very helpful. However, law school may still present difficulties such as arguing both sides, conciseness, and the use of jargon. You can better prepare yourself for those speed bumps by taking a research and writing class, practicing critical thinking, and completing an internship. Doing these things will prepare you for the challenges that law school brings and help you to excel in your studies.
Garner, B. A. (Ed.). (2009). Black’s law dictionary (9th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.