Pre-Law and the Preeminence of Christ
by Dr. Richard Follett, Professor of History
It’s been seven years since Greg Steele graduated from Covenant with a History degree. Greg stopped by my office recently while visiting the area. I’m always pleased when former students update me on their life and adventures in the practice of law. When Greg graduated from Covenant, he ultimately wanted to practice law somewhere in the southeast. He has since graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law and is now a family law attorney in his hometown in the Upcountry of South Carolina.
Two of Greg’s classmates who graduated with him in 2013 are now practicing law in New York and France. These three illustrate the range of where our legal alumni serve: small towns, big cities, and even internationally. All three decided to enter law after considerable reflection and conversations with brothers and sisters in Christ who practiced law. While each practice in different areas, they all entered law school with a sense of calling and a commitment to service grounded in their deeper calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
I’ve been advising Covenant students interested in legal careers since 2003. Since then, each year we have seen at least one and as many as nine graduates enter law school. Some students entered Covenant as freshmen with a strong sense that God was calling them into legal practice. Others developed an interest as they came to understand their gifts and the range of careers a law degree can lead to, as well as a better sense of how they might serve others and support their families through the profession.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.
But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
We have a series of popular and sometimes contradictory images of lawyers in America. We have television dramas that portray an exciting profession where people have to argue and debate. But there are also jokes about attorneys making things more complicated just for the sake of gaining more money. And there is some truth to both images, though a lot of legal actions are fairly mundane and routine. In any case, law is a very serious calling and one we want students to think about, both for themselves and their futures, and because it can have a tremendous impact in the lives of many other people.
At Covenant, pre-law advising focuses on preparing Christians to work in legal practice. It’s really about equipping God’s people to serve one another, to seek the good of the larger community in which they live, and to provide the kind of salt and light that are needed in a world of conflicting demands. It’s more than simply equipping one with academic credentials. It’s about shaping how students see things and how they work.
Getting into law school, succeeding there, and then practicing law effectively requires a varying range of skills, many of which are based on the liberal arts’ concern for careful reading, reasoning, and writing. Covenant’s core curriculum provides the most basic foundation for students. In addition to that, we introduce ideas and questions that help students think more fully about their faith and what they might be doing in the practice of law. Covenant infuses education with a keen sense of our calling to follow Christ and to be equipped to glorify Him and to serve His kingdom.
Our efforts to combine faith and learning amplify the need for polished skills not only to work in this world, but to work in such a way that eternity will also be reflected in our day to day efforts. And that’s what we are trying to do with pre-law students at Covenant. As Rachel George, one of our legal alumna, told me early in my advising efforts,
“One of the primary purposes of lawyers is to help maintain civility in a fallen and broken world (i.e., to restrain sinners as they duke it out over this or that trespass or potential trespass). Although the nature of the sin might vary by practice, lawyers have to work with folks and advise them in the midst of greed and selfishness every day. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s hard to think of a better place for a Christian with a heart and mind for redeeming the day to day workings of our culture.”
Covenant students graduate well equipped to succeed in law school and the legal profession. But more importantly, they are equipped for life as Christians, to be good and faithful servants, who seek to display that Christ is preeminent in all things.
Advising Pre-Law Students
When I came to Covenant College to take up a position teaching European History, I did not expect to serve as a pre-law advisor. But it was clear that the person doing it was overloaded and needed some relief. It has been a wonderful and rewarding duty because we have such eager students, and we have the freedom to be blunt about the challenges of law. We can openly discuss both the everyday challenges of time and resources and also the long term and more important challenges that deal with spiritual commitments and one’s family life, which should be priorities for any Christian.
Students at Covenant learn to work hard. Consequently, we have had a very high success rate among those applying to law schools. I’ve watched students develop and expand their understanding of the world through their core and major classes, the study of Scripture, and reflection on the priorities of Christ and His kingdom. This integration provides the basis for frank discussions about different kinds of law practice, what kind of life students want to lead when they practice, and how these sometimes come into conflict.
Several years ago, a Covenant graduate contacted me because he had the opportunity to go to a top ten ranked law school, but he also had an offer of a half-tuition scholarship from another school that was high quality but not quite as prestigious. His question was: do you go to the best one and take the hit on the loans you have to take out, or do you go to the more economical school? We were able to talk about the challenges and opportunities that each involved and the impact these might have on his family and church life along with the economic question. In the end, he chose the more prestigious law school but did so with the full knowledge about the impact of his decision. I’ve had the freedom to talk about these things openly and boldly, based on a mutual understanding of our calling in Christ, which I could not have done in the same way in many other places.
Being a pre-law advisor at Covenant is an ongoing process. Once students graduate, it doesn’t necessarily end. Some of our graduates do not decide on law school until a few years after they’ve graduated. And even once they are in law school, or have completed it, we’ve tried to build connections between legal alumni and help connect alumni to current students. Several of our alumni have expressed their willingness to aid and support current students, and they are as eager as I am to see students do wonderfully and get into good law schools.
The Pre-Law Program
For our students, a pre-law focus helps them think through the practical applications of a biblical call to justice and righteousness. And our students come to understand this in a big way. It’s about law and order, yes, but not as a simplistic application of laws. They understand that there are also issues of social opportunity and social abuse that sometimes have to be addressed and worked through to help their clients or the larger society in which they live.
Pre-law is not a major but an advising track. And unlike medical schools, law schools do not have a set of prerequisite courses you must have before you get there. A student can major in almost anything and still get into law school if he or she has a solid GPA, strong scores on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), and a strong personal statement. Success in law school is really based on skills a student has acquired throughout all of his or her education. These can be refined or expanded in college, and that is what we seek to do at Covenant.
Our approach to pre-law is based on interviews and surveys with lawyers, judges, and alumni of the college who are practicing law. Our course recommendations for pre-law students reflect their input. Consistently, practicing judges and lawyers, as well as most law school admissions representatives I’ve talked to over the years, have emphasized that students should study what they love at the undergraduate level. Then they should add courses outside their major that help them gain other background knowledge and skills necessary to be a good lawyer. Many Covenant alumni do take traditional pre-law majors such as, history, philosophy, business, and English. But we also have legal alumni who have studied psychology, sociology, chemistry, and even art.
Because our economy involves many different specializations, the modern practice of law involves complex connections which need lawyers who understand the different specialties. Law schools look for a diversity of majors among their incoming students. Certainly, any student will want some skills often acquired through those traditional majors. For instance, a student must be able to write and do research, because law schools require these. If one’s major discipline doesn’t emphasize such skills, we advise a student to take courses that will help develop and practice them.
No matter the major, we encourage students to take courses on U.S. History and the Constitution to understand the context of American law. We encourage students to learn and practice public speaking, because even if their legal focus is writing and proofing contracts, they will need to speak in front of peers in law school and legal practice, as well as their clients. We strongly encourage students to take our business law course, which introduces students to both general principles of law and the practice and particulars of what most American attorneys are involved with directly or indirectly. Our business law course is taught by an experienced attorney, so students learn from someone who has been thinking about the profession as a Christian for many years.
Finally, we encourage students to get involved with the student-led Pre-Law Society, which organizes events, brings in speakers addressing legal topics, and makes students aware of opportunities for internships, LSAT study groups, and law school events. The Pre-Law Society also helps to promote Constitution Day in September every year, which includes speakers and discussions on topics related to the U.S. Constitution.
Between recommended courses and participation in the Pre-Law Society, students graduate from Covenant with a strong understanding of what law school requires, a realistic view of what practicing law actually entails, and the skills needed to succeed in both. Our graduates have attended a broad range of law schools, from nationally recognized institutions like Harvard, Columbia, or the University of Virginia, to regionally respected schools like Georgia State, Wake Forest, or Mercer. Some have practiced law in national venues, and others have focused on local concerns.
What I have heard most often from alumni is the positive impact Covenant had on preparing them for the demands of law school and on their view of the law as a calling, giving them not only a way to make a living, but also to make a difference. They see the people they advocate for not merely as clients, but as creatures created in the image of God, with concerns and priorities well beyond the particular needs of the legal dilemma they might be facing at a particular time. Their Covenant education equipped them to serve in multiple ways and to understand that part of their calling is to serve people, to be Christ to people.