Engineers in Law School: A Survival Guide

engineers in law school

Engineering (or any hard science) and law can be a powerful combination.  The communications skills developed in law school can be a great complement to the quantitative skills developed in your engineering training.  The framework for analyzing legal cases is also largely similar to scientific problem solving techniques.

So, as an engineer, can you succeed in law school? Of course. But there are some common pitfalls where engineers and other hard science majors (we’ll refer to you as “techies”) typically have trouble if they aren’t prepared. Note that these pitfalls typically make it harder for engineers to adjust to law school compared to their social sciences and liberal arts peers. But, once adjusted, engineers in law school (as well as other techies) can do just as well as (and sometimes better than) their political science classmates. Read on for tips that can make the transition to law school easier to handle.

Don’t be surprised…

While law school will be new for everyone, there are certain aspects that will be particularly foreign for many techies and engineers in law school.

Reading.  Do most science and engineering majors even know how to read?  You will certainly be required to become proficient at it in law school. The sheer volume will be daunting. Don’t be surprised to get over 100 pages of case reading per night. Moreover, reading cases isn’t like reading a novel – cases are extremely dense and will slow down even the fastest readers. And this doesn’t even take into account case briefing. When it comes down to it, even the fastest students spend several hours every night just keeping up with daily assignments. This is particularly true during the first few weeks when new law students have no clue what they are doing. So if you aren’t the most practiced reader, you need to be efficient as early as possible. That’s where LearnLeo can help. Reading and briefing the cases in our Pre-Law Portal can help you become more efficient quickly, so that you can hit the ground running when school starts.

Writing.  Let’s face it, unless you were that elusive chemical engineering and classics double major (i.e., a unicorn), you probably didn’t have to write a lot of essays when you were in undergrad. You may be awesome at writing up a lab report, but that won’t be helpful in law school. The good news is that your writing skills won’t really be tested until the end of your first semester when you take exams. So you will have, and should take, time to get good at it.

Exams.  Law school exams are not like problem sets. They are essay tests with a few true/false or multiple choice questions thrown in on rare occasion.  So, if you haven’t taken many of these types of exams, you will need to practice. Most schools provide practice exams from past years, and you should take full advantage of these. Form a study group and compare your answers with your peers. One big thing to keep in mind is that law school exams are not about getting the “right” answer, like solving an equation. However, points on law school exams largely come from “showing your work” (identifying and analyzing the merits of various arguments), so they may not be as foreign as you think.

Your strengths

Don’t despair. There will be aspects about legal education where your techie background will give you a distinct advantage.

Analytical skills.  With some minor exceptions, legal analysis follows a very logical progression (i.e., start with A, add B, with exception C, put it through process D, apply rule E, and you will get the likely answer Z). It’s sort of like a proof, which you know how to do (remember the games section on the LSAT?). This is essentially how techies are taught to think, and is something that many non-techies struggle with in law school. What you will need to learn is how to convey that logic elegantly in words, as this is the key to effective legal writing.

Math.  The word itself scares most law students; just wait until the first time a law professor puts a number on the board and 75% of the class starts to grumble. Consider taking law school classes that have a good dose of math like tax and antitrust. Most of this math is of the sort found in economics and statistics, but your science background can give you a leg up on liberal arts majors who cower at anything more advanced than long division. You will also be better prepared to make effective arguments, and refute arguments made, with statistics.

What to focus on

Legal Writing.  You probably aren’t going to learn how to write like a lawyer during the summer before law school. Luckily, you won’t need to. All law schools have a mandatory legal writing class for first year students. While many students find this class an annoyance (because it’s usually for less credit hours and can seem like a distraction), as a techie, this class is essential.  Here you will develop the skills needed for final exams. So put some extra time into this class and get to know the instructor, it will pay dividends in your other classes at the end of the term.

Practice.  Unfortunately, we can’t tell you to just read faster. But doing more reading during the summer prior to law school will help you speed up a bit.  Better yet, start reading the cases you will actually be reading when school begins and start learning how to analyze them. You can find a cross-section of these cases on our Pre-Law Portal.

The Reward

If you want to make the effort and pick up the communication skills, law school can be tremendously rewarding for techies.  While patent law isn’t your only career option, students with hard science backgrounds are the only ones eligible to sit for the patent bar. And, with the rise of the internet and related technology over the past 15 years, demand for intellectual property lawyers is rising along with job prospects for qualified students.


Wilson Tsu
Founder and CEO,
B.S. and M.Eng., Electrical Engineering, Cornell University
J.D., Northwestern University School of Law
M.B.A., Kellogg School of Management


Check out these other posts:

comments powered by Disqus