Cornell's pre-law program hits its stride

By Blake Russmussen '05

“Students who are interested in going to law school have the opportunity to develop real mentors at Cornell. This allows them to get really helpful, very personal letters that law schools like, but don’t get very often."

Craig Allin, Professor of Politics

Though you won’t find a listing for “pre-law” anywhere in the course catalogue, don’t be fooled. 2005 marked the start of an initiative to reorganize and enhance Cornell’s prelaw program to better position pre-law focused majors—often politics, history, or sociology students—to gain admission to the best law schools and to learn as much as possible about the variety of opportunities in the legal profession.

Now, after three years of grooming future lawyers, the Cornell College Pre- Law Program has hit its stride, headed by RJ Holmes ’99 and Professor of Politics Craig Allin.

“Our goal is to guide and prepare students of all majors for success when applying to law schools and looking toward a law career,” said Holmes. “The Law School Admission Council says a broad liberal arts curriculum is the best preparation for law school, and we try to provide that to our students in as many ways as possible.”

One of the most significant innovations the Pre-Law Program has brought to Cornell is the use of faculty advisors outside of the major for faculty advising. While all students still maintain their normal academic advisors, the program provides for specific pre-law advising from Allin, History Professor Phil Lucas, and Sociology Professor Mary Olson.

“What advisors do, primarily, is try to help students interested in going to law school put together a curriculum that suits their tastes and interests,” said Allin. “I spend more time helping to craft their personal statement, and less time in a conveying of information role.”

“Another thing that is important is letters of recommendation,” added Allin. “Students who are interested in going to law school have the opportunity to develop real mentors at Cornell. This allows them to get really helpful, very personal letters that law schools like, but don’t get very often.” The Pre-Law Program matches interested students with lawyer-alumni to answer questions and assist in any way necessary.

Advisors also offer help with the law school admissions process, aiding students in writing essays, securing letters of recommendation, and searching for the right law school to fit their needs. The purpose, says Holmes, is to have someone on faculty who understands the skills needed to find success in law school and can aid students in developing those skills.

In fact, developing the skills needed to succeed in law school is a major part of what the Cornell Pre-Law Program is all about. In that vein, extracurricular programs designed to expose and educate students to the world of law have been implemented over the past three years. The first was the establishment at Cornell of one of only three undergraduate chapters in Iowa of Phi Alpha Delta (P.A.D.), the international law fraternity. Twenty-two active members of P.A.D. are currently on campus.

“Phi Alpha Delta really focuses on professional development opportunities,” said Holmes. “I tell them that they’re creating their professional network right then and there, because these will be their future colleagues.”

To that end, there is no shortage of networking opportunities, both through Phi Alpha Delta and through the Pre-Law Program itself. “Lunch with a Lawyer” is one such program started by the fraternity, in which local lawyers from a variety of backgrounds, schools, and practices come to campus to share their story and lunch with pre-law students. The fraternity holds other social activities, including dinners, coffee talks, and question and answer sessions.

Additionally, the Pre-Law Program takes students off campus for further exposure and networking. For example, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke at Drake law school, Cornell’s Pre-Law Program paid to take the students to the lecture. Furthermore, each year the program sends students to the annual Law School Admission Council national law school forum in Chicago.

Possibly the most fruitful program to come out of pre-law is alumni mentoring. Each year students apply to have an alumni mentor and are matched based on school choice, area of legal interest, and geographic location. These mentoring opportunities often lead to fruitful professional relationships, like that between Senior Leslie Tweeton and Craig Shives ’67.

“My alumni mentor, Craig Shives, is like family now,” said Tweeton, a past president of Phi Alpha Delta. “I interned in his law firm, where I was invited to lunch with the dean of the University of Iowa College of Law and with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice clerks.”

Finally, among the most exciting new developments in pre-law is Cornell’s Mock Trial Program. Mock Trial has gotten off to a rousing start, thanks to help from Coach Kristofer Lyons and Marcus Pohlmann ’72. Pohlmann is president of the American Mock Trial Association and was recently inducted into the Mock Trial Hall of Fame as a coach. Cornell Mock Trial, which is open to all students, held the inaugural Marcus D. Pohlmann Mock Trial Invitational this past October and attracted 26 teams from across the country, including seven nationally recognized teams. Senior Jessica Morton and Junior Anica Vujanic both won individual awards for their portrayal of witnesses in the case.

Through all of these activities and several others, the purpose of the Pre-Law Program remains crystal clear. Sheryl Stoll ’70, trustee and chair of the board’s Pre-Law Program committee, put it this way:

“We clearly wanted to establish a premier program unique among Cornell’s peer group, not only to attract students interested in a legal career to Cornell but to help those on the fence about law school to have enough information to make the best decision about their future career path. Though there is much more we hope to accomplish, I think we are well on the way to doing just that.”