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Expanding Scranton’s Pre-Law Program

Expanding Scranton’s Pre-Law Program

New law school affiliations, a legal studies concentration, a successful mock trial team, and more, mean better opportunities for Scranton students interested in the law.

Over the past five years, graduating seniors have had a great track record of getting into law school with an acceptance rate ranging from 96 to 100 percent, evidence of the success of Scranton’s expanding pre-law program. The University has also increased the number of entering students interested in pre-law by more than 50 percent since 2016.

“We are doing more,” said Pre-Law Advisory Program advisor and philosophy professor Matthew Meyer, Ph.D.

A re-energized alumni group is creating a supportive network for Scranton students, and faculty and administrators are working to expand programming. Together, they are navigating the complicated world of law, from law school admissions to a profession in flux post-recession. Over the past five years, the team, led by Meyer, who took on his role as advisor in 2014, has secured several law school affiliation agreements, launched mock trial, created a new legal studies concentration, started an LSAT preparation course for credit and revived the Council of Alumni Lawyers.

The University has secured agreements with Villanova University School of Law, Duquesne University School of Law, Boston College Law School and Penn State Law, which allow students to obtain their undergraduate degree and J.D. in just six, rather than seven, years.

The affiliations began with Villanova in May 2017, which gives Scranton students who meet the program requirements the option of automatic admission to the law school with a minimum scholarship of $25,000 per year while at Villanova. The successive programs are similar, but having multiple affiliations gives students a variety of options.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: The Honorable Thomas Vanaskie, former U.S. Circuit Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, who begins teaching pre-law students this academic year; 2019 mock trial team members alongside Jason Shrive, Esq. '06 (left) and Sid Prejean, Esq. '72 (second from right); Matthew Meyer, Ph.D., Pre-Law advisor and philosophy professor; and pre-law graduates Matthew Coughlin '19 and Marlene Geerinck '19. 

Pre-Law Culture

“We want to create a culture around pre-law,” said Dr. Meyer, who personally advises dozens of pre-law students each year. “This isn’t just about the individual students going to law school. It’s about them knowing and connecting with one another and identifying as pre-law.”

An out-of-the-classroom resource that has “excited and energized” students in recent years, according to Meyer, is the mock trial team, founded in 2015. This past February, the team, which is open to anyone not just those in pre-law, competed in the opening round of the American Mock Trial Association’s national tournament. Sid Prejean, Esq. ’72 and Jason Shrive, Esq. ’06, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Criminal Justice & Criminology, are the team’s faculty advisors.

“The mock trial team is an important part of the pre-law program at The University of Scranton,” said Shrive, “as it provides our students with an opportunity to experience a courtroom setting, after performing case analysis and preparation of a theme and theory of a mock civil or criminal case.”

Alexis Mergus ’19, a three-year mock trial team member, said, “I cherish the friendships I’ve made with my team and have watched them thrive and encourage each other to be the best they can be. They are a group of extremely driven individuals, and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish next.”

This positive “pre-law culture” was also embraced by Marlene Geerinck ’19, former president of the Pre-Law Society, one of the oldest groups on campus. As president, Geerinck organized events to help students navigate the law school application process throughout their undergraduate years and introduced them to the profession through a popular alumni panel. She devoted herself to helping other students network, aiming to keep it from feeling overwhelming or burdensome.

Geerinck just began law school at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. She admits she always felt supported at Scranton, which is why networking came so naturally to her.

“It’s kind of like a subconscious thing that you’re doing, at least for me,” she said. “I made connections from studying with people and going to D.C. to meet alumni. I have great connections, but I wasn’t really aware I was making them.”

Courses and Resources

By expanding the programming at Scranton, faculty teaching pre-law courses are helping to ensure that students are not only developing the skills necessary for success in law school but advancing students’ understanding of the law and developing their commitment to justice and the common good.

A year ago, the University began offering the concentration for students preparing for law school, 

as well as those interested in studying law at the undergraduate level. The interdisciplinary concentration, which allows students to take courses ranging from business law to the U.S. Constitution, is intended to further develop and formalize the curriculum associated with the Pre-Law Advisory Program, which is non-curricular.

“The legal studies concentration encourages faculty from multiple disciplines to develop new courses pertaining to law and will also allow for more pre-law related programming beyond the classroom,” said Meyer.

One such faculty member is Joel Kemp, Ph.D., a Harvard Law School graduate and assistant professor of theology and religious studies, who developed the course “Separating Church and State? Bible Law & America” as part of the concentration.

“Understanding the flexibility of a law degree nationally is helping the way we develop the legal studies concentration,” said Kemp. “I think we do a great service in helping students decide — if you are going down this road, here is what you need to do to succeed, and here are your options.”

This past year, Kemp, a former practicing attorney, served as faculty advisor for the Pre-Law Society. “My experience in law gives me a great deal to talk to the students about,” said Kemp, “helping with strategies for applying to law school, getting ready for the LSAT and, through the society, understanding how to do well in law school.”

Since Geerinck has been president of the society, she has seen the attendance at pre-law events grow, with students expressing their enthusiasm for one particular event: the alumni panel that is held by the society each spring.

Beyond Law School

An alumna who has participated in that panel is Mara Smith, Esq. ’13, associate general counsel at Brighton Health Plan Solutions, who earned her law degree at Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University. In addition to the panel, she has attended many of the student-run, pre-law events.

“The students are eager to engage alumni and always ask insightful, thought-provoking questions about my experience in law school and beyond,” said Smith. “I think an alumni network is invaluable to current pre-law students.”

When she was a student, Smith was offered her first law firm job by University Trustee Kevin O’Brien, Esq. ’80.

“I worked for Kevin at his law firm for six years and learned most of what has allowed me to succeed in this profession (from both a logistics and a social perspective) from his willingness to support me as a pre-law student at Scranton,” she said.

Smith has been working alongside Meyer and Shrive to connect even more alumni lawyers with students and reviving the Council of Alumni Lawyers to improve the opportunities for Scranton students in pre-law.

The practical skills that Scranton can provide its students due to the growing program, as well as its strength in the liberal arts, are a winning formula for producing lawyers, noted Jeff Gingerich, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, who has been instrumental in securing the law school agreements over the past year.

“The world needs Scranton alumni in the legal field,” said Gingerich. “The ethical and spiritual preparation that all Scranton students experience will provide a vital context for those who wish to use law and policy to create a safer and more just world around us.”

Matthew Coughlin ’19: Relying on Cooperative Success

Matthew Coughlin ’19 just started his 1L year at Boston College. He said the growth of pre-law at Scranton during his four years was unmistakable. He is only sorry he missed the opportunity to be part of the 3-3 program.

“The success of the program here is the community. And that’s only grown since we’ve been here,” said Coughlin.

A double major in political science and philosophy, member of the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program and president of Student Government, Coughlin took to the notion that pre-law culture was essential to a fruitful Scranton experience and promising future in law.

“When students apply to law schools, it’s not, ‘Oh I got in and you didn’t;’ it’s encouraging each other, helping each other, texting each other, talking throughout the process, because we want to collectively see each other succeed,” he said. “That’s where you get the community aspect of Scranton blending with the pre-law group. It’s based on more cooperative success than competitiveness.”

That’s why Coughlin is so enthusiastic about the future at Scranton, including the hiring of The Honorable Thomas Vanaskie, former U.S. Circuit Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, who will begin teaching this academic year.

“It’s going to be an insane resource for students on an experiential level,” said Coughlin.

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