Pre-Law? Naw! by
(53 Stories)

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

I pretty much knew I wanted to be a lawyer from early on. Jewish kids from professional families were supposed to become professionals themselves, right? And I was enamored with tales of Clarence Darrow and Atticus Finch.  Plus, my father, the doctor, hadn’t done much to make me want to become one myself.  (“Don’t be a doctor, son.”  “Why, Dad?” “Too much paperwork.”)

I knew enough about the process to know that, unlike pre-med, there was really no such thing as "pre-law."  In fact, I was amused that the only guys who seemed to label themselves as being "pre-law" were these huge college football players introducing themselves before games on TV. (See illustration in Featured Image.)  I was pretty sure that these guys were more likely to end up as members of the NFL than the ABA.

So, entering college, I just assumed my next step would be law school and then a law career itself.  Plus I knew enough about the process to know that, unlike pre-med, there was really no such thing as “pre-law.”  In fact, I was amused that the only guys who seemed to label themselves as being “pre-law” were these huge college football players introducing themselves before games on TV. (See illustration in Featured Image.)  I was pretty sure that these guys were more likely to end up as members of the NFL than the ABA.

Therefore, in choosing my major — or “concentration” as we elitists at Harvard called it (I guess they couldn’t come up with a Latin term) — I was pretty much free to do what I wanted to do.  And I knew that even the concentrations that have some relationship to the law, like economics, English or political science (again, we called it “government”), were not particularly important prerequisites; just a good liberal arts education concentration would do.

We were required to first declare our concentration before the end of freshman year — a ridiculously early time, but saved by the ease of switching concentrations later on and the relatively unburdensome course requirements for most concentrations — so I chose Latin.  I had taken a lot of it in high school and had enjoyed the class I was taking my freshman year.  However, while taking the Latin final that spring, one of the other students in the class fell asleep.  As a terrified freshman, I was convinced that, if I tried to wake him, I would be accused of cheating and thrown out of school and my life ruined, so I did nothing.  Fortunately, one of the proctors also saw — or maybe heard — the student and woke him.  But at that moment it dawned on me that, yeah, this was a pretty boring subject.

That summer, I was casually talking to friends about majors/concentrations and one suggested, seemingly out of nowhere, that I choose anthropology.  I thought about it and decided that it sounded just about right for me.  In particular, I had always pictured a spectrum of concentrations ranging from the softest of sciences on one end — psychology, sociology, etc. — to the hardest of sciences on the other — biology, chemistry, etc.  And it seemed to me that anthropology sat somewhere nicely in the middle: neither on the “pure bullshit” nor the “total nerd” end of the spectrum.  Voila!

And, though I never harbored any thoughts of pursuing a career in anthropology (or anything but the law), I found it to be exactly this nice balance and I truly enjoyed it.  I even enjoyed poring through the mammoth ethnographies of exotic and obscure (to me, anyway) cultures. Amusingly, years after I graduated, a friend asked me if I knew the “trick” about reading these  ethnographies.  I was clueless.  He explained that, as mammoth as they were, they were almost always structured so that the first sentence in every paragraph was the conclusion (e.g., “The Tikopea are a highly patriarchal society, and women with economic wherewithal are frequently accused of witchcraft in an effort to marginalize their power.”) and the rest of the paragraph is simply the empirical data supporting that conclusion.  As such, you really only had to read that first sentence to understand the book.  Amazed, I pulled down a few of my ethnographies and leafed through them.  Sure enough, unconscious as I was of this “trick,” in almost all instances the only sentence I had highlighted in a paragraph was the first.  I then thought of all the extra hours I could have spent with sex, drugs and rock and roll in college had I only known the “trick” at the time.  Ah, well….

In any event, I have happily — or mostly happily — had a legal career for many years.  In fact, as I write this, I  am off to my 45th law school reunion in a couple of days. And no regrets about either concentrating in anthropology or not pursuing a career in it.  Ironically, however, my former wife, though she also started her career as a lawyer (we met in law school), eventually became — and still is — the President of the American Museum of Natural History.  As a result, I was often included in gatherings with the many anthropologists at the Museum and thoroughly enjoyed that immersion.  A happy reminder of a happy major.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


  1. Good story, John. Re anthropology, however, I wonder whether it may be the best prep for law school and lawyering. A former colleague In HR who specialized in facilitating conferences was a Ph.D anthropologist, who joked that anthropology was the study of loose affiliations of warring tribes. Hmm. Sounds a bit like bar associations.
    Anyway, re those hulking “pre law” types pictured: bear in mind one Alan Page, Hall of Fame defensive tackle for Minnesota as well as a retired associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

  2. Marian says:

    Very cool, John. I enjoyed my anthropology courses as well and your story enlightened me about this major as preparation for law. English was considered a good “pre-law” major, and I might have considered law school if I’d been aware of the IP field (a litigator I’m not). My college now has a major called PLEA, which I believes stands for politics, law, and economic analysis, which is supposed to cover the bases. Leaves out the social sciences, though.

  3. Suzy says:

    It never occurred to me that you were headed to law school all along. Just like it never occurred to you that I wasn’t. Funny. I guess we never talked about future plans in those days. I love your story about realizing how boring Latin was when another kid fell asleep in the exam! If that hadn’t happened, you might have graduated with a degree in Latin. You could have given the Latin Oration at commencement. That would have been super cool!

    I also like how you ended up hobnobbing with anthropologists as a result of your marital connection to the Museum of Natural History. Nice to know your Anthro degree wasn’t wasted. Btw, what was Ellen’s college major?

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    I love the humor in your story, John. The beauty of going to law school is that you are free to study what interests you prior to making that commitment. Perhaps not knowing the trick for studying anthropology until after you had pored through all of those texts was good prep for law school?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. You raise a good point and a lot of law reviews are written in similar fashion, with the legal citations following the conclusion. Unfortunately, as other lawyers will attest, most reading in law school is “case law” — poring through case after case in search of the key facts and “holdings” buried somewhere within.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Good story, John. Funny imagining your sleeping friend in that Latin exam. Boring, indeed. I never knew you were an anthropology major. Learning new things about you all the time. I’m sure you were just drawn to Margaret Mead’s natives.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I am not sure if it was sexism or scholarship, but most of the anthropology professors I had were not too impressed with Margaret Mead or her methodologies. They said that she didn’t really study the cultures very carefully and there was a running inside joke in the anthropology department about the vast difference between what the natives told Mead they did and what they actually did. (And it was suggested that the natives were themselves in on the joke.)

  6. Risa Nye says:

    I enjoyed reading your story, John. Back in the day, I worked at the law school on the Berkeley campus (Boalt Hall). Part of my job was to open and sort the mail and I was usually the first person to see applications as they came in. So many Poli Sci majors! The applications that stood out were from people who had majored in subjects that weren’t even close to pre-law studies. Good for for you!

Leave a Reply