Why Two Years of Law School Isn’t Enough
A debate within legal academia has been spurred by the recession, the increased outsourcing of legal jobs and use of technology, and decreased demand for new lawyers in the legal market. That debate is seeking to answer the question, “how long should law school last?”
A small but vocal minority has suggested reducing law school to two years—and they’re not proposing to condense three years of classes into two, an option available at a few schools (Northwestern University, Brooklyn Law School, and Pepperdine University). These programs allow a student to complete three years of coursework in two years, but a student will still pay three years worth of tuition and complete three years worth of credits. Advocates of a “true” two-year program propose a wholesale reform of legal education, reducing the time and the number of credits required to earn a J.D.
In this system, graduates would complete about 60 credits instead of the current American Bar Association requirement of 83. While I’m ultimately against this change, this position has some merit. Cutting coursework down to two years would have obvious financial advantages; students would save a year of tuition and enter the workforce a year earlier. Also, unlike current programs which condense three years of credits, these programs could (possibly) be accomplished without sacrificing the opportunity to gain legal experience during the summer.
This is not a radical idea. The current practice, where almost all lawyers have attended three years of law school, is a relatively recent development. Before the Civil War, attending law school at all was very rare. Law was overwhelmingly a self-taught profession where a prospective attorney studied underneath a practitioner, learning on the job before he wrote the bar. Neither was this method of legal education reserved for small town practitioners, many Supreme Court Justices never attended Law School and it was not too long ago that a self-taught attorney was referred to as “Justice.”
James F. Byrnes, nominated in 1941, was the most recent member of the Supreme Court to never attend a law school (and likely the last). Certainly no one is advocating that we return to a system where most lawyers read law (the practice of studying underneath a lawyer as an apprentice in lieu of formal schooling); however, to argue that law school can be reduced in time and substance is not without historical precedent. Why not adopt a system with a strong historical tradition and the ability to save a significant sum of money? Well, there are several reasons why such a move would be a mistake.
First, it would not only require the obvious overhaul of law school curriculum, but would require an overhaul of the hiring process in the legal industry. Very few 1Ls work as an associate in their first year, firms simply don’t have enough information (grades) to evaluate a candidate, and the market has made the concept of most 1Ls getting an associateship untenable for the foreseeable future. If law schools reduced the length of time to two years, the critical experience of a 2L associateship would be gone. Sure, you could eliminate the 1L summer work experience, but the skills learned there (often valuable for firm work) would be lost. Eliminating a year of study necessitates eliminating summer work experience. Students would have only one chance to gain legal experience prior to graduation, and they would apply to these positions with one semester of grades, at best. This process would yield unpredictable results in an industry just starting to re-stabilize.
Second, by reducing the time that students are in school, there will be less time for students to network and form lasting connections. The saying, “you are your network” is true in more ways than one, and depriving students the opportunity to forge strong connections (often made during their 1L internship and 2L associateship) would put students at a disadvantage in the world outside of law school (which does exist!) Students would know their first year section, a few people from working, and maybe a couple of more students from their final semester. While mentorship and networking programs instituted by the school are (and remain) useful, these kinds of relationships cannot simulate the actual experience of working side-by-side with practicing attorneys in the legal market.
Finally, many students are unsure of what type of legal work they wish to pursue (whether corporate, public interest, government, academia, etc.). Giving students three years to explore the various options available to those with a law degree gives students more flexibility in planning their career, which is, ultimately, the goal of law school. Reducing law school to two years would not help achieve this goal and could very well hamper it. Whatever the merits of reducing the amount of time spent in law school are, the disadvantages relating to the ability to find and secure meaningful employment that would likely result from such a change are serious enough to make the adaptation of a two-year program unwise.
–Nick Lombardi, Opinion Writer