Admissions Question: August 25
August 25, 2013
Q: I notice that law schools specialize in various areas of the law. Do I have to pick a specialty when I apply to law school or do I have to do that once I’m in school?
A: You never actually have to pick a specialty if you don’t want to. Law schools have specialized, or “certificate”, programs which they award to students who complete certain requirements, but not all students are going to take advantage of this option.
The best way I can explain what a specialty is, is to compare it to getting a minor, or an emphasis within your major, in college. You should look at it as though law is your “major” and if you want to focus your electives in a certain area then you can get an emphasis, or “certificate”, in that area. It is not required to specialize in law school, just as it is not required to ever get a minor in college. It is simply a way to show that you have pursued a particular area of interest. It is also a way for law schools to promote an area of law in which it feels it is particularly strong.
For example, at Lewis & Clark Law School we have six certificate programs – Business & Commercial Law, Criminal Law, Environmental & Natural Resources Law, Intellectual Property Law, Public Interest Law and Tax Law. While we offer six specialties, our students can study several other subject areas and our graduates end up practicing many different types of law, including employment law, international law, health law, immigration law, family law, Indian law, civil rights law, and much, much more.
About one-third of our students pursue a certificate in one of the five areas mentioned above. Although they are taking focused classes, they also still have room to take courses outside of their specialty area. The other two-thirds are taking a mix of courses in many different subject areas. Students are also welcome to take courses within specialized areas without having to follow the set requirements for the certificate. In sum, there is a lot of flexibility to pursue many interests.
Generally, it can be a good idea to look at a school that has a specialty of interest to you if practicing in that area is really the main reason why you want to go to law school. For example, if you are set on practicing tax law and that is the motivating factor for you in going to law school, then you probably will want to attend a school with a specialty in tax law (you’ll want to make sure to compare specialties at various law schools as some schools’ specialties are more substantive than others). If you aren’t sure what kind of law you want to practice and you would like to keep your options open, then the specialties offered at a law school may not be as important to you. All ABA-accredited law schools are going to be able to prepare you to practice any type of law, so if you decide you want to practice entertainment law at a school that doesn’t have a specialty in it, then you should still be able to take a couple of courses and get some exposure to entertainment law even though you won’t have a specialized curriculum in that area.
For employment purposes, it may be even more important to gain an internship/externship, get clinical experience, or build up your resume other ways in your area of interest than it is to get a certificate; both, of course, would be ideal, but not always necessary.