Alumni & Law School

The Communication Studies courses I took while at UPS prepared me well for law school because the courses were writing-intensive and involved a high degree of critical thinking.  Reading, writing, and critical thinking are three essential skills needed for those embarking on a career in the law.

I first became interested in the Communication Studies major at UPS during my sophomore year, after I took the Communication 244 course: Rhetorical Criticism with Professor James Jasinski.  Many students were intimidated by the rigorous pace Professor Jasinski kept in the class.  As I recall, we had papers due every week which focused on a famous public  address, such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” President Lincoln’s “House Divided,” or President Kennedy’s “Inaugural Address,” to name a few.   Not only did this course require students to engage in their own persuasive writing, but it also required students to do so through critically analyzing another’s prose.  This simultaneous exercise in writing forces students to become critical readers and thinkers, learn many of the tools for good writing through others’ writings, and to incorporate such tools into their own writings.  On top of all of this, students study our country’s political history through the written and spoken word.  Students are introduced to some our country’s most famous orations and speeches, as well as even debates in Congress.  Similarly, Professor Jasinski’s 344 – Rhetorical Theory and 444 – Advanced Rhetoric courses take the 244 methods to other levels.

Communication, whether written or verbal, is necessary for law practice.  For example, in law school I spent about 95 percent of my entire time either reading lengthy and dense U.S. Supreme Court or Circuit Court cases, (re)studying much of the political history I had learned in Communication studies, or writing mock court briefs and many memorandums.  Through my Communication Studies courses, I encountered the writings and speeches of our country’s most famous and storied lawyers and political figures – Daniel Webster, William Jennings Bryant, Abraham Lincoln, and many, many others.  It is also instructive to know a little about this country’s political history. 

While I found my passion for learning in the Rhetoric track within the Communication Studies major, I also enjoyed many of my other courses for many of the same reasons.  The major permitted me to take a variety of classes focused on human interaction and communication, while incorporating range of disciplines, from the spoken word to the written word, from philosophy to history, from politics to business organizations.  Communication, much like law, has a pervading influence in any discipline.  The law practice is definitely no exception.  In fact, to put it affirmatively, the practice of law is largely dependent upon Communication Studies.  While law school will introduce many to this notion, it is always wise to start early with courses in Communication Studies!    

Brian Mulrey

J.D./Masters in Environmental Law

University of Vermont (2005)

(UPS class of 2001)

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Though rhetoric may be fascinating as an academic subject, many students may question the extent of its practical application.  Clearly, an understanding of Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphor theories won’t help you pour a better latté as a barista at Starbucks. However, should your communication studies degree take you into higher academics, and specifically the study of law, you will find that the concepts you learned and the skills you developed in the study of rhetoric will serve you well.  Outside of John Grisham novels and television thrillers such as Law & Order (which no dedicated law student has the free time to watch), the study of law is primarily an exercise in interpreting, analyzing, and reproducing large blocks of text in which the meaning of each word may be exceedingly important.  In other words, it might be fair to categorize the law as rhetoric in action, where linguistic constructs meet the real world.  Thus, understanding the interplay between them is essential to being a good lawyer.

Additionally, the rhetorical tools you learn will be exceptionally useful in crafting persuasive arguments on behalf of your client, whether written as a legal brief, or as a closing statement in front of a jury.  Though the exigencies of a trial lawyer and Lincoln giving his second inaugural may be distinct, the goal is one and the same: employing the language at your disposal for the purpose of convincing others to adopt your point of view.  It is also worth noting that the majority of well-respected and frequently-cited judges and legal scholars not only have a technical mastery of the law, but write with the flair of someone who has clearly mastered many of the techniques we study as rhetoricians.  All of this is a long and complicated way of saying that studying rhetoric is one of the best ways you can prepare for a successful career in the law, which is an added bonus on top of the fact that studying rhetoric will make you generally smarter and better-looking than everyone else.

Paul Danielson

J.D. Northwestern University School of Law (2007)

(UPS class of 2002)

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The first thing you will realize when you get to Law School is that being an attorney has little to do with knowing all the laws, rules, codes and regulations by heart. Rather, what really matters is your ability to interpret, understand and communicate complex messages.   I cannot emphasize enough how valuable my experience in the UPS Communication Studies Department was in laying the foundation for these critical skills. 

The most applicable course in my opinion was Rhetorical Criticism.  For example, when dealing with a ridiculously difficult UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) statute, at first glance, you will likely have no clue what it means.  In Law School, statutes can feel as if they are written in another language.  Rhet Crit helped me step back, slow down and deconstruct the text line by line, map out the clauses and look for keys to solving the puzzle like “and” or “or.”  Instead of having to understand a jumbled mess of words, I simply work through a “decision tree” step by step.  It’s a huge advantage. 

On the other hand, Rhet Crit was tremendously helpful for me in the presentation of Oral arguments.  (Funny, you spend your college career working to sound smart, but when you get to Law School you learn that the most effective strategy is to dumb everything down, especially for the Judge and jury.)  For example, besides learning the basic aspects of argument (Syllogism, the Toulmin model etc.), you learn the “tricks” to effective speech writing.  I use anaphora (similar sentence openings) and antithesis in my opening and closing arguments at trial all the time. Here is a brief example from my current Opening Statement for the TYLA National Mock Trial Team Case:

Dana Dalton will tell you that on the day of the accident, he had time to watch little Rebecca McGee’s school bus turn into on coming traffic.

He will tell you he had time to watch it pull over on the far side of the road.

Time to watch it stop.

Time to watch the bus put on its red flashing lights and put out its stop sign.

He will tell you he had time to watch the driver open the door.

Time to watch two little girls get out.

He will tell you he had time to watch two little girls cross three lanes of traffic.

Time to watch them cross at the median. 

Time to see that they were headed across his path.

But Mr. Dalton will try and tell you today that he had NO time to stop… 

I would have never understood the power of repetition and unity in my writing had Prof. Jasinski not put the fear of God in me that semester.  Law school is about learning how to make complex messages seem simple.  There is no better way to prepare for that than by submitting yourself to the gauntlet that is Rhetorical Criticism. 

Aaron G. Thomson

J.D. University of Washington School of Law(2007)

(UPS class of 2004)

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The courses and interactions with other students and professors in the Communication Studies department at the University of Puget Sound assisted me greatly in preparing for law school.  In law school, the use of the Socratic Method can be quite intimidating.  However, the small discussion-oriented classes in the Communication Studies department helped to train me to speak appropriately and concisely in classes and to feel self-assured in doing so.  Furthermore, my UPS professors' interest in my input, opinions, and work encouraged me to increase my academic interactions with faculty and students, a tool that has been useful in creating meaningful relationships with professors in law school.  

Additionally, many of my Communication Studies classes had significant writing assignments.  These assignments forced me to learn to critically read, analyze, and then apply materials from class and research cogently into my own writing.  The support and encouragement from Communication Studies professors also enabled me to submit my writing to Northwest Communication Association conferences and receive recognition for my writing.  Thus, my time with the Communication Studies Department was quite useful in preparing me for law school, and I appreciate the tools and skills that I developed in my classes at UPS increasingly each day.

Caitlin Quander

University of Denver Law School

(UPS class of 2005)

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If you plan to attend law school after graduating from Puget Sound, I can attest to the fact that being a Communication Studies major will help you tremendously. Although it would also be useful to take classes in Politics & Government or others dealing with substantive legal issues, learning how to communicate arguments effectively is, in my opinion, a more important skill to acquire as an undergraduate. You’ll learn the substantive stuff once you get to law school – what law schools really want are prospective students who can think critically and communicate effectively because those are the ones who will likely do well once they get to law school and who will most likely succeed as lawyers in the future.

During orientation week at Vermont Law School, our instructor told us that being able to write was 95% of what it takes to do well as a law student. I silently thanked myself for choosing to major in Communication Studies. However, it wasn’t until after I took my final exams that I realized just how true that statement was. I had four exams, each lasting three to four hours and worth 100% of my final grade for the course. The exams usually consist of a fact pattern (or maybe a few, depending on the class), which students analyze using the legal theories and rules they have learned throughout the course. Regardless of how well you know the material, if you are unable to communicate that information in a clear and concise manner, you will do poorly on the exam because the professor either won’t understand the thought you are trying to convey or time constraints will prevent you from getting all of your ideas on paper.

The communications classes that I found most helpful in preparing me for law school were Rhetorical Criticism (and any other class with Professor Jasinski) and Argumentation Theory. However, almost all of the Communication Studies classes that Puget Sound offers will benefit future law students in some way because they teach you how to break down and closely analyze arguments and communications made by others and to evaluate their effectiveness (as well as make your own arguments more effective). Furthermore, many of them are fairly writing-intensive and therefore allow students to improve their writing skills significantly. Although I believe that most law schools require that students take a legal writing course in their first year, there is an expectation that students are already fairly strong writers prior to arriving at law school. The courses are designed to teach the specifics of legal writing, not to build a student’s writing abilities from ground up. 

Marie Kyle

University of Vermont Law School

(UPS class of 2010)