The Two-Year Law Degree: A Great Idea That Will Never Come to Be

The people who would benefit most from a cheaper, shorter degree have the least power to fight for it.
CBS

You can barely go a week without hearing ominous news about law schools and the legal profession. Applications are down, job prospects are awful, schools may close, less qualified people are sitting for the LSAT. The latest in the string of bad news is a drop in people taking the LSAT. “Law schools slump” is the new “dog bites man.”

Some, like President Obama, suggest that one of the ways out of this slump is to shorten law school to two years. As a former law student who left after one year, I think allowing for more flexibility in the length of law school is a great idea. Too bad it will never happen.

(There are a handful of programs that offer two-year JDs; problem is, they still require the same coursework and generally the same tuition. In other words, it’s three years jammed into two without any discount.)

In my experience, law school is too long and too impractical. Many law schools are masquerading as liberal-arts colleges when they should be preparing students for the post-graduation jobs they’re likely to take.

Case in point: My former law school offered a potpourri of utterly fascinating and utterly useless classes: Art Law; Greek Tragedy and Philosophy; Religion, Law and Politics. You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong: as someone who holds a bachelors degree in psychology, a subject that I haven’t once directly used in my professional career, I value learning for learning’s sake, experimenting in a variety disciplines, and taking wildly impractical classes just because they sound interesting. But any potential benefit must be weighed against the massive cost: tens of thousands of dollars in additional debt as well as one year of lost earning.

Law professors and lawyers can debate the right length of law school forever. Writing in Slate, Eric Posner acknowledges that “excessively strict or rigid accreditation requirements deprive the public of low cost legal services” by restricting two-year or fast track programs. His colleague at the University of Chicago Geoff Stone disagrees, arguing that law students should “want that [third] year because you will be a better lawyer for the next 50 years with that investment.”

Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz argues for two years of study plus one year of clinical practice; Philip Schrag, a Georgetown law professor, says three years is necessary in order to cover all the legal basics. Bruce Ackerman, a law professor at Yale, asserts that the third year is essential to teach students the “social science and statistics” needed to tackle “21st-century challenges.” NYU law professor Sam Estreicher proposes that the third year should be optional. Others point out that that British legal education is essentially only one year without an apparent decrease in the quality of lawyers, though one veteran American lawyer claims law school should last for four years.

Where does that leave us? Personal experience may have some value, but they’re hardly definitive, particularly when they point in different directions. This seems to be a case in which everyone has an opinion, but no one has any firm evidence.

The truth may be that everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong; the “correct” length of law school might not exist. Perhaps accreditation standards should be eased so that the precise form of legal education – in years and curriculum – could vary by lawyer, school, employer, and practice area. Under this system, every stakeholder would have a hand in deciding the ideal course of study. Law schools choose their curriculum. Students choose their school. Employers choose their employees. Clients choose their lawyers.

Each party’s decision would be interdependent on the other. A law student might try to demand a year-long program, but he’d have a hard time finding a law school or employer to take him. A firm could choose to only hire graduates with a four-year degree, but it would have a hard time filling all staffing needs. Pressure would be exerted in all directions to make legal education efficient, useful, and cost-effective.

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Matt Barnum is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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