Coming to law school has made me particularly glad that I decided to major in philosophy. In many ways, I’ve found many of the ideas I encountered as an undergraduate to be foundational to the way I approach the law. I could make a pretty long list of books that I think every student should study (not just “read,” but “study”) before coming to law school, but here are some texts that I think are particularly important:
Plato: The Republic. Really, reading anything by Plato will change you. The Republic is a classic. In it, you’ll get the principle of non-contradiction (no thing can be both true and untrue in the same respect at the same time), which is the foundation for all knowledge in the Western tradition. This principle is also the foundation of law, where distinctions are of upmost importance. This principle is the foundation of most of what you’ll read, especially judicial opinions. Judges often disagree with each other, but they don’t disagree on a simple relativism. Rather, one judge will offer a conclusion that is different from another judge either because the circumstances are different, or because he thinks that other judge is wrong. Law involves a strong sense of the true and the untrue.
Reading Plato will also instill in you a particular kind of knowledge, a knowledge that is hard to attain, but which is the foundation for all wisdom: knowledge of what you don’t know. Law students (really, students in general) usually have very little knowledge of what they don’t know. This often limits their ability to make arguments, because they make assumptions that are premature or unfounded. Even (perhaps especially) the students who think they know what they don’t know, throw around statements as if those statements are a priori first principles. Plato will help you to really get to know what you don’t know, and, in the process, you’ll come to a greater appreciation and love of what you do know.
John Henry Newman: An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Law school is full of questions like: How do you prove something? And, how do you know something? The Development of Christian Doctrine provides a foundation for a Christian—and a common-sense—epistemology. He explains how coming to belief isn’t a simple logical sequence. It comes from a conglomeration of facts that lead one to belief through a kind of substantial certainty—much like how a lawyer brings a jury to believe in his side of the case. This work is a defense of belief, and it’ll help you understand how the law calls upon lawyers to prove things.
The Development of Christian Doctrine also shows how ideas change and develop over time, while fundamentally remaining the same. This will help you immensely as you work on understanding how laws and court decisions can be interpreted and developed. In a way, it will help you to think like a judge, trying to understand how the law can move forward while still having continuity with its past. I have yet to find another text that does this as well as Newman’s work.
Aristotle: The Politics (and) The Nicomachean Ethics. Once you start law school, you won’t have time to ask questions like: Why do we have law? What is the purpose of government? What is the good of society? What is my good? What is human happiness, and how can we achieve it? These two texts are some of the Western world’s first treatments of these questions. You MUST have at least an introduction to these questions before coming to law school. EVERYTHING you do as a lawyer (and as a human being) will be founded upon your answers to these questions, whether you realize it or not. And, once you have a view of these questions, you’ll be able to spot others’ answers to them as well.
In the Ethics, you’ll also want to look carefully at Aristotle’s treatment of the virtue of prudence. At the end of law school, your degree will be a “J.D.” You’ll be a doctor of jurisprudence. You’ll be someone trained in the art of making fine distinctions, of determining unclear and grey areas of the law. Some would say that this makes lawyers hairsplitters who balk at objective truths. Some lawyers are hairsplitters who balk at objective truths, but Aristotle provides another possibility: perhaps the true lawyer is the man who has properly cultivated the great virtue of prudence, as it relates to the law. He is not the faithless hairsplitter. He is the faithful man of virtue.
Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica II-II, questions 57-122. This is Aquinas’ treatment of justice. It’s among the most “practical” parts of the Summa, dealing with questions like, whether a man can steal bread to feed his family (question 66), or whether it’s ok to lie (question 110). For modern readers, some of the things he has to say may seem pretty funny, but his distinctions are helpful for thinking about these questions and getting a view of at least one man’s view of justice and how it relates to practical matters.
For a more abstract view of Aquinas’ thoughts on law, one can turn to his “Treatise on Law,” which is in the Summa I-II, questions 90-108. Here he treats questions of what law is, where it comes from, how it relates to human nature and to God. This will be especially helpful for Christian readers, although it is helpful for students who are interested in natural law or the history of law. Aquinas provides a foundation for much of the Western tradition of law, and much of law today has roots in this part of the Summa.
Finally, you should read a book about law school. I’d recommend Law School Confidential. I wish that I would have read it before I applied to law school or considered taking the LSAT. Law school isn’t like college. You can’t just get a degree anywhere and use it anywhere. It matters where you go and what you do, so make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. I’ve heard countless horror stories about law students who ended up going to schools that didn’t help them or who were stuck in a career they hated because they accumulated so much debt that they couldn’t do anything else. Don’t just go to law school to go to law school. Do your research, and make an informed decision.