10/10/2017 Tom Cole '05

Tom Cole: Using Classics in a Law Career

  • Tom Cole '05

When I told family friends that I was majoring in the Classics, I got worried looks.  When I told them I wanted to be a lawyer, I got advice about majoring in something more “practical.”  The idea about the Classics being inadvisable for would-be law-school students took a hit a few years ago when it was shown classics majors garnered the highest LSAT scores. But this is only part of the story.  A Classics major may help with a good LSAT score, but it also prepares a college student better than any other major for being a lawyer, which is a different intellectual beast from law school. 

There are several ways to show this, but three, to my mind, stand out.  First, learning an inflected language trains the mind to observe minute details—Greek particles or the Latin subjunctive—that dictate or change the meaning of a sentence.  Numerous cases are decided because one lawyer or law firm was better than another at recognizing those minute details and their importance.  Second, beginning with first-year survey courses, the discipline forces its students to compare different types of evidence.  Reconciling, say, a historical treatise with conflicting archaeological remains leads a student to question a piece of evidence’s range of application as well as its inherent flaws.  Even everyday breach-of-contract cases routinely entail analyzing different types of evidence.  For instance, Company A may not have paid Company B the full price for the microchips, but Company A argues that the microchips don’t fulfill the all microchip specifications.  Such a dispute will inevitably turn to expert reports on the production and status of the chips as well as economic forecasts of the relevant market—this is to say nothing of the refined art of contract interpretation.  One last point, work in the Classics, with its shifting sands of different types of evidence, is often most fruitful when students and scholars are questioning the scholarly status quo.  The most obvious example of this may be Milman Perry’s transforming of Homeric scholarship.  This mode of attack is little different from how the best advocates work.  Read their briefs—anyone in the Solicitor General’s office will do—and you’ll see them recasting information to reshape the very question at issue.  For, owning the question is a step toward winning the argument.

I’ve only taught for a short time.  But even in that time, I’ve met students who enjoyed the Classics yet hesitated pursuing it further because they questioned whether a Classics major would help them toward a certain career.  I can say, at least in regard to the law, nothing could help them more.  

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