By Katharine Webster
Patti Burris ’17 wanted to go to law school. But as a community college student in Texas, she wasn’t sure how to prepare – or whether she could afford it.
After earning her associate degree and working for several years, Burris transferred to UMass Lowell. She spoke with the pre-law advisor and decided to pursue a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree with concentrations in legal studies and English.
“I hoped the Legal Studies Program would prepare me for applying to law school – and it did,” says Burris, who was also an Honors College student. “When I came to UMass Lowell, that’s where all of the doors got opened.”
Burris ended up winning a scholarship to Suffolk University Law School that covered all but $5,000 of her first-year tuition. When she placed first in her section of 100 students that year, she won a full scholarship for her second and third years – and a job as a teaching assistant in the first-year Contracts class.
She has already completed two judicial internships, one at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the other at the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She will work for a prominent Boston law firm, Goodwin Procter, as an associate this summer, and – “assuming I don’t blow it” – is guaranteed a job in the private equity division after she graduates.
Legal studies is a popular minor for students in all majors – and a very popular concentration within the Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree, with 116 students currently choosing it as one of their two main areas of study, says co-director and Assoc. Teaching Prof. Walter Toomey ’03 ’17. And it’s growing, with course enrollments roughly doubling in the past five years.
Legal studies is housed within the School of Criminology and Justice Studies. Undergraduate criminal justice majors are already required to take classes in criminal law, so many complete a minor in legal studies, which gives them an important foundation for good jobs in policing, corrections, homeland security, victim services and the courts, Toomey says.
The reverse is true, too, Toomey says: Quite a few criminal justice majors – more than from any other major here – go on to law school, where their comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice system gives them an edge.
Likewise, Introduction to Business Law is required of all undergraduates in the Manning School of Business, says legal studies co-director and Assoc. Teaching Prof. Michelle Veilleux ’93, who teaches multiple sections every semester. About one in five legal studies minors is a business major.
“Many legal issues come up in the day-to-day operations of a business, from contracts and hiring to employment discrimination,” Veilleux says. “It’s important for our students to understand basic concepts in business law so that as business professionals, they can make better informed decisions.”
Students from any major can apply to law school. Traditionally, most law students have come from majors like English, philosophy, history and political science that emphasize research, writing and logic. However, law schools increasingly seek students with undergraduate majors in science, engineering and math because they have the technical background to work in the growing field of patent law, Toomey says.
A legal studies minor is not a prerequisite for law school. But taking a few classes can help students figure out if law school is really for them.
“The idea of helping people is great, but sitting down and reading a lot of legal code is daunting. It’s good to get your feet wet first instead of waiting until you’re on the hook for $150,000 in law school debt,” Toomey says. “It’s also our experience that students who take legal studies courses do a lot better adapting to the first year of law school than those who’ve never taken one.”
Senior Daniel Barros is an economics major who minored in political science, taking classes on constitutional law and the American legal system. Like Burris, he started college thinking that he may want to go to law school, but he wasn’t entirely sure until he took some legal studies classes – especially Legal Issues in Racism, taught by local attorney and adjunct faculty member Paul King ’99.
“That was what really put me over the edge,” Barros says. “We had really insightful, good discussions, and the case briefs we worked on showed us how you could use the law to help others.”
Barros was admitted to every law school to which he applied. He chose New England Law Boston, where King earned his law degree, for its public interest law program – and the full scholarship the school offered. He will move back home with his family in Tewksbury and commute to Boston, so as not to take on debt.
The number of legal studies students who go on to law school is modest, but growing steadily, up from 30 in 2015 to 38 last year, as more see that it’s possible to win scholarships to make it affordable, Toomey says. Another affordable option is the new “3+3” program, which lets UML students who go on to UMass Law School graduate with both degrees in six years.
Students who want to go to law school can get help from Toomey and Veilleux finding internships with local law firms or government agencies – another great way to figure out if they enjoy the work. Seniors can also do an independent study of a first-year law school subject with Toomey, while juniors and seniors can take free classes that will prepare them for the LSAT, the law school admissions test.
Rachel Record, an honors criminal justice major with minors in legal studies and Spanish, says a practicum with Toomey provided the kind of hands-on experience that students don’t usually get until they’re in law school.
Toomey offered his legal services for free – as long as Record could participate – to a client who had been improperly denied unemployment benefits. The client agreed. Record read the entire Massachusetts unemployment law book, summarized arguments and accompanied Toomey and the client to her appeal hearing. They won.
“It was great to know we could have an impact,” Record says. “The system misread our client’s situation, and we were able to correct that.”
For courtroom junkies who can’t wait to get to law school, the university also has a very active and highly competitive Mock Trial team. It’s part of the Pre-law Society, a student club that also hosts speakers.
The Legal Studies Program offers an alternative to law school, too: an online, six-course certificate in paralegal studies that can be completed on its own or as part of an online B.S. in criminal justice. While paralegals make less money than attorneys, they can command salaries of up to $80,000 a year in the Boston area, says Toomey.
“There’s a practical demand for high-quality paralegals,” he says.