Specialized JD Programming: Majoring in Law School

“What’s your major?”

Huh? This is law school. We don’t have “majors” here.

But, maybe we should. Maybe we should have majors or other specialized academic programming within the J.D. curricula.

Before going to law school myself, I was an admissions marketing consultant for colleges and universities. I did a lot of work helping law schools try to distinguish this almost-homogenous academic product. The three key factors in higher education marketing are location, price, and reputation of the program prospects want to study.

There’s not much law school administrators can do about their location, and there’s really not a lot administrators can do about the price of tuition. So, it was always my goal to help law schools identify “marquee” programs and use those areas of true leadership to attract students who will be successful and happy studying in those specialized areas of the curriculum.

My thought was that we could create an upward spiral of success by matching the right students with the right programs, leading the students to careers that align the graduate’s talents and interests with the needs of the firms the students join. The student would win because their specialized area of study would engage their interest leading to better grades and employment. The employer would win by hiring a well-prepared young lawyer with a passion for the specific work. The law school would win by building a reputation for great results in those marquee areas of education, thus attracting better students, the interest of employers, and hopefully a long-term relationship with alumni willing to make financial contributions.

Not so fast marketing guy.

As one of my seminar writing projects in law school, I did a research survey of current students, law school faculty, prospective students, NALP-member law firm hiring coordinators, and a few practicing attorneys. The goal was to get a better understanding of how the idea of specialized academic programming in the JD curricula was understood. I think of these programs as akin to “majors” in law school, but most are labeled “concentration,” “certificate,” or “track” programs.

Gain a Competitive Edge

You can distinguish yourself by building expertise in a specific area of the law with MSU-DCL’s concentrations and certificate programs. Choose from eight programs that offer specialized elective courses in a variety of areas. Not only will you start building proficiency in a law specialty, but prospective employers will take notice of your credentials, which will appear on your transcript.

–  Michigan State Web Site (2003)

The quote from Michigan State’s Web site captures the goal of creating specialized programs, but this quote is opposed by many in the academy.

“Specializations are bad news. Students think they actually make one a specialist which is totally wrong. Students CHOOSE schools based on a specialization which is wholly ludicrous. Students need an intensive, required broad-based liberal arts education in the lawand NOT a concentration in one area of the law. They can do that when they get out. Most of these “specialization” programs are a joke. They are just a bunch of courses put together to mislead students into thinking they have some special expertise. Law students need to hit the basics on a broad level and hit them hard. We require 2/3s of their ENTIRE three year curriculum. We work them very hard. That is what makes an excellent lawyer and then they can truly specialize when they get out. I truly believe this entire specialization “program” is a silly, misleading and functionally worthless and is simply a way for law schools to attempt to market themselves to unknowing and unsophisticated students. The ABA should forbid such advertising, only allow concentrations and severely restrict the number of credit hours that can be designated to them. We need to spend all of our time making these students lawyers and not having them use their “play time” in the last two years wandering around trying to believe they are becoming specialist [sic]. It is just so absolutely silly and counterproductive to effective teaching of professionals.”

-Survey Data: Faculty and Administration Verbatim Response 65

I still believe.

I’m still convinced that our the practice of law would benefit from more “specialized” programs within the J.D. curriculum—“majors”—and will explore this theme in my next few posts. Some of the key questions are obvious: “what would make those programs different and better?” coming to the top of my list.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Would you have benefited from more specialized academic programming?

(Photo credit:http://www.flickr.com/photos/andercismo/2349098787)


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  • Kevin,

    I really think the entire law school experience needs a major overhaul. Perhaps the first 1.5 years in class on core subjects and the other 1.5 years in some kind of apprenticeship/practical experience placement.

    My third year of law school really didn’t feel all that productive and the ensuing clerkship for a solo after law school was the most valuable legal education I’ve received. I even made the attempt to take more practical classes as electives while in law school.

    It seems the trend now is to specialize and/or develop a legal practice niche. The concept you describe of J.D. “majors” would be congruent with that trend. I think law students could benefit from such programs as they face a rather fiercely competitive job market.

  • Great post. Law students should consider their desire to focus on that area of law and whether the legal economy is hiring for that particular area.

    • Good point, Randall. For example, I have a passion for animal law, but that may not necessary lead to a job post-graduation. So I intend to keep an open mind and a watchful eye on the various markets that appear promising.

  • Thanks for adding that link Randall, sorry I didn’t. And Laura’s article that you reference in your post is great too. It all comes down to building an expertise and brand in an area you love, then doing your best to help people who want what you have.

    I DO see a trap in picking your area of expertise by the external measure of if someone is hiring in that area or not. If you hate bankruptcy law, but that’s where the jobs are – you may get a job, but you’ll be miserable. If what you want to do is something that you can’t “find” a job doing, then you need to start figuring out how to “make” a job doing what you love. Or, maybe the time isn’t right to go to law school.

    • I agree completely—you have to try and do what you love.

  • Staci Zaretsky

    I did a business law concentration in law school, and it was the best decision that I could have made. I got to take all of the classes that I really wanted to take anyway, and got a nifty new resume line out of it.

    • Good point about the nifty new resume line Staci. I have a post coming out in the future about the need for law schools to use a common nomenclature relative to “concentrations” and other specialized programming so that potential employers and prospective law students might better understand the relative values of different specialized programming approaches.

  • You’ve touched on an issue here that is key to the disconnect between the gatekeepers to the legal profession and the practice of law as it has been developing for the past 20 years. Both law school and the bar exam are designed with the notion that every lawyer needs to be prepared to be a “door lawyer” – a generalist who takes whatever comes in the door. Meanwhile, lawyers are becoming more specialized. For example, it’s not hard for a civil lawyer to never touch a criminal law case (I never have), yet we’re all forced to take Criminal Law and answer criminal law questions on the bar exam.

    I imagine that it would be more expensive for law schools to offer specialized tracks because they would have to offer more “upper level” courses to fill out majors and the student teacher ratios might go down. Schools might also be forced to rely more on adjuncts from the private bar, which may undermine the authority of tenured faculty members.

    It’s easy for law professors to say that all lawyers “need” a broad liberal-arts type legal education – the professors don’t actually have to convince clients to hire them. Students should have more choice in the type of legal education they purchase.

  • This is a great post. I agree that the practice of law would benefit from more specialized programs within the J.D. curriculum. For now (in absence of a specialized program), I advise the students whom I mentor (that think they may be interested in big firm jobs) to “pick a major” as you say and develop an interest in a particular area of law (and if very focused, a sub-area) as soon as possible and then take classes, participate in clinics, talk to alumni, and take summer/part-time jobs working in the area. Law firms appreciate someone who has shown this level of focus and commitment to a particular practice area (which is rare).

  • Heather

    I think this concept assumes students know in what area of law they would like to practice and stick with that area through graduation. In my experience, if students chose their law schools based on what they want to do with the law degree, they would all be looking for the school where they can major in saving the world. Most entering law students don’t have much of an idea of what it means to practice law, let alone what it means to practice in a particular specialty.