Amanda Milam knew before she enrolled in Lipscomb University’s Institute for Law, Justice & Society that she wanted to get involved in some sort of international advocacy—she just wasn’t sure what kind.
But not long after she took an introductory course at the Institute that featured a unit on human trafficking, Milam not only discovered a social cause that she wanted to embrace but she got a job at an agency where she could put her interest to work.
An aspiring law student, Milam credits the Institute with putting her on the path to a career in a way that might not have happened in a traditional pre-law program. The Institute actually requires students to serve at a social advocacy organization as part of its program.
“If I had just done a normal pre-law program, then my interests would not have been tailored to the point where they are now,” says Milam, 27, who got referred through the director of the Institute to a job as executive systems operator at Free for Life International, a Franklin, Tenn.-based organization that works to end human trafficking.
“I wouldn’t have the focus that I have now,” she says. “So it has tailored my interest to further enhance my vision for my career.”
Through a course called Legal Research and Reasoning, Milam also did the type of work that would have been required to help prepare an appeal for Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee inmate who, at age 18, was sentenced to life in prison for the robbery and murder of a man who had solicited her for prostitution—a life into which her supporters say she had been forced.
Legal education experts say there is a growing interest in undergraduate pre-law programs such as Lipscomb’s as educators work to better prepare students for the rigors and demands of law school and the legal profession.
“I think there is a greater appreciation for ways in which students might be prepared for the law school experience and legal careers,” says Vielka V. Holness, director of the Pre Law Institute at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
At the undergraduate level, such programs are considered cutting edge.
“This may be a trend among a few law schools … but perhaps not yet a ‘trend’ earlier in the pipeline,” Holness says.
“Pre-law advisers nationally have been thinking of different ways in which they might improve the quality of the experiences of pre-law students and help them make sound decisions now about their careers and intellectual academic development, because there’s so much in the news about the number of unhappy lawyers,” Holness says. “No pre-law adviser wants to push forward a class of students that simply becomes one of that number.”
Due to the varying nature and focus of pre-law programs, it’s difficult to quantify just how common a program such as Lipscomb’s is in the relative scheme of things. For instance, the last decade or so has seen the emergence of several “innocence projects” in which undergraduate students—including those who are studying journalism—help work on appeals to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. However, what is clear is that such programs make law school candidates more attractive to law schools, legal education experts say.
“Your unique experiences as an undergraduate are of interest to law school admissions officers who have diverse experiences,” says Kent D. Lollis, the executive director for diversity initiatives at the Law School Admission Council.
“Law schools are looking for people who can add to the seriousness on various topics of the law. To the degree students get that kind of exposure and experience is certainly a benefit,” Lollis says.
Thus, Lipscomb’s emphasis on having undergraduates work at a social advocacy organization is a plus.
Lipscomb’s Institute got its start in October 2007 after university president Dr. L. Randolph Lowry III broached the idea of finding new ways to prepare students for careers in the legal profession.
“We really wanted to capture the essence of young people today,” says Institute director Dr. Charla Long, who helped develop the Institute. “Young people today want to be change agents in their community. Some may want to be global thinkers. Others may want to bring about change in their neighborhood.”
With that in mind, Long helped build the Institute upon four ideas: to provide a top-notch multidisciplinary undergraduate legal education; to engage in community service related to contemporary social and legal issues; to work globally on issues related to law, justice and society; and to do outreach at the K-12 level by training those students about the American legal system.
The Institute relies heavily on adjuncts who are practicing attorneys. Students in the Institute take trips to London and Washington, D.C., where they recently got the opportunity to observe oral arguments in a U.S. Supreme Court case.
During the most recent trip to D.C., Institute students also got to meet face-to-face with alumni who are currently in law school.
Among the alumni was Catherine Lynn-Allison. The 23-year-old is now at the George Washington University School of Law. Her experience as part of the Institute represents perhaps the best tangible evidence of the program’s effectiveness.
While at Lipscomb, Lynn-Allison took a course in alternative dispute resolution. Subsequently, she won a competition at George Washington University that enabled her to obtain a coveted spot on the law school’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Board, one of three student-run “skill boards” at the school.
“We did a mock negotiation where we’d sit down and talk through a negotiation problem,” Lynn-Allison recalled of her Institute experience. “That helped me feel more comfortable when I was competing (at GWU).”