Coming Out of the Pre-Law Closet

One of the worst things you can do when starting undergraduate studies with law school  ambitions (and you want to stay that way) is enroll in a philosophy course. Many pre-law students take philosophy because the type of student who wants to be a lawyer tends to thinks he can answer any question well, including those which have plagued civilization for centuries.  These students can expect a thorough vetting by philosophers about the practice of law and the art of persuasion.

First, you need to know that you are not (necessarily) a sophist by virtue of being a lawyer. By the traditional Greek definition, a sophist is an intellectual mercenary who is paid to ensure that weak arguments win debates through underhanded tactics. When your philosophy professor, probably at the point in the semester when you are reading a Socratic dialogue, asks the future lawyers in the room to raise their hands after he reads aloud Socrates’ thoughts on sophism, your first struggle is about to begin. A line is drawn; “So, sophists are like the lawyers of ancient Greece?” a well-meaning classmate will ask. At this point, as an admitted future attorney, all eyes will turn to you.  If you ever want to be the self-respecting  vice-president of your student philosophy club, I suggest you have an answer.

The first difference is that lawyers play by the same rules as their opponents. In any court case, two equivalently trained professionals use the same rules and similar methods to persuade an objective audience. Sophists, on the other hand, choose techniques that manipulated audiences and were off-limits for their opponents in argument. Which leads to a second difference: lawyers are under no pretense of objectivity to what’s being debated. Each counselor unabashedly works for one side of the issue and does all he can to advance one side. Ultimately, we allow this because we believe the two opposing forces can offset each others’ bias and leave truth in the middle. In contrast, sophists and their opponents each claimed to be talking about the truth in its entirety, from a neutral point of view. Sophists hide bias and claim neutrality while bending the intellectual rules of debate; lawyers are a part of a process that takes bias into consideration to get at the truth, and plays by agreed-upon rules for intellectual appeal.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I should clarify that I am a casualty of this tendency. I am a formerly pre-law student, graduating with a philosophy major and no intentions of enrolling in law school in the near future. I may be a lost cause, but my experience may help you save yourself.

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