‘m frequently asked by readers about what I consider to be the “best” prelaw majors. Conventional wisdom has been that students contemplating law school should earn undergraduate degrees in Philosophy, History, Literature and other similar liberal arts programs. Advisors reason that reading and writing skills are critical in law school and so these degrees will better prepare students for law school.
But in a recent blog post, I wrote that students should at least consider a "more marketable" degree than these traditional prelaw majors.
I suggested that prelaw students should consider degrees such as accounting, marketing, engineering and others that can actually be used in a career. I reasoned that if someone really wants to go to law school, they can develop the skills necessary to succeed through these programs, and supplement if necessary through additional reading, writing and other activities. I further reasoned that having a "more marketable" degree was also good insurance, just in case the legal thing didn’t work out.
Needless to say, I was lambasted by at least a few readers.
Indignant Literature majors wrote, claiming that this was the worst advice they had ever read. After all, they claimed, everyone should choose a major that met their interests. That was the whole point of college, right? You go to college to grow, develop and self-actualize. You go to college to find out who you are and who you want to be.
If there is one thing that this economy has taught an entire generation of college students, it’s that jobs are not a certainty. And the truth is that it’s always been that way. And the sadder truth is that educational institutions, unlike the rest of the business world, are not required to include a disclaimer on your degree. Something like: "Warning: this History degree is not guaranteed to get you a real job. You may be able to find employment in the fast-food industry, however, this degree will have very little, if anything, to do with it."
Abraham Maslow, the noted psychologist, taught us a long time ago that we all seek to self-actualize. In fact, he described this process as a pyramidal hierarchy, called the "hierarchy of needs." The pyramid describes the human process of emotional and intellectual development. And at the very top of this pyramid is the gold ring, nirvana, the climax of life- self-actualization. Maslow explained that we all ultimately seek to self-actualize. And self-actualization will result in happiness.
People who tell college students to follow their dreams are, in reality, quoting this self-actualization philosophy. And on the surface, it makes sense. However, when you dig a little deeper, you realize that this advice is flawed.
To understand why, all you have to do is refer to the bottom of Mr. Maslow’s hierarchy. At the very, very bottom of the hierarchy are things like food, shelter and security. Without these, one cannot ascend to "self-actualization." So to tell a young college student to "find yourself" is good advice if that student is assured of food, shelter and security for the rest of his or her life. But if they are like most of us, they are probably going to need to find a job. And if they can’t find a job, they will never move beyond basic need satisfaction. And they will likely never self-actualize.
So, I stand by my earlier advice regarding the best prelaw majors. To be clear, I’m not recommending that you study accounting if you absolutely hate accounting. But to learn to hate something you have to do it for a while. Further, most likely, there will always be at least something about a job that you are not going to like. That’s why someone has to pay you to do it. We have a term for doing something that you absolutely love, it’s called "vacation."
And by the way, that’s why I believe there are so many disaffected young lawyers. They simply haven’t given it enough of a chance. There are so many different types of lawyer jobs- big firms, small firms, non-profits, educational institutions, corporations, government, etc. If you cannot find a lawyer job that you like a lot, if not downright love, then you probably haven’t either looked hard enough or given the one you have a chance. And that is also the beauty of a law degree- you can do a wide variety of things with one.
But the next time you find yourself thinking about self-actualizing, remember that Maslow himself said that before you go there, you need to take care of the basic stuff first. Like finding a good job and eating on a regular basis.