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.
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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.

This flexibility may make legal programs last for two years or it may, as NYU professor Estreicher suggests, force schools “to redesign that third year to make it more relevant to what these students need.” If schools manage to do so, the third year will remain; if not, it won’t.

Could this ever happen?

I doubt it.

Universities, law professors, and the ever expanding group of university administrators have a vested interest in making sure that law school lasts three years. I don’t blame them – a contracted legal education will lead to fewer jobs for professors and administrators plus less money for universities.

They’ll be joined arm in arm by current lawyers. Those who have already finished a three-year J.D. would make law school longer and more arduous if they could. After all, when you’re in school you want graduation requirements to go down, the bar exam to become more passable, your classes to ease in difficulty – but once you’ve graduated you want the opposite, you want to pull the ladder up with you. Making it more difficult for new lawyers to enter the market increases the scarcity of current lawyers, shields them from competition, and, via the cold clockwork of economics, drives up prices and wages.

Ideally, the antidote to this sort of regulatory capture is an opposing interest group. Unfortunately, no such countervailing force exists. The natural enemies of three-year law school should be law students. But this doesn’t quite work out.

Let’s say that when I was a first year in law school my friends and I organized to lobby to change graduation requirements and accredit two-year law schools. We pooled our meager funds, organized marches, wrote op-eds, built coalitions with other interest groups.

And let’s say, miracle of all miracles, after a couple of years of advocacy our rag-tag team of underfunded, overworked law students (how did we pass 1L year?!) manage to get the American Bar Association to change the accreditations rules. Whoops! Too late for us; we’re about to enter our third year, and no, sorry, our law school is not about to alter degree-granting requirements for an already captive set of students. At this point, we rush back to the bar association, and say, no, no, just kidding. Two years, we now say piously, is much too short a time for aspiring lawyers!

The truth is that no group of law students will ever band together to advocate for meaningful change. Setting aside the legitimate question of time and resources, an interest group of law student will fail because if the advocated-for change ever comes, it will likely be too late for them.

The interest group that has the biggest dog in this fight is one composed of future law students: you know, history majors at liberal arts schools who are taking the LSAT “just in case.”

Problem is, organizing these lawyers-to-be is an all-but impossible task.

After all, many people don’t know they’re going to law school all that far in advance of actually going to law school. Good luck getting that history major—and thousands of others—to advocate for a shortened law program that he’s not even sure he’ll ever attend.

Until recently, law schools have not had a problem attracting students. That's changing, and changing fast.  The irony, I suppose, is that the nature of law school as a fallback option for some is what in part will prevent it from ever changing in a way that might help break legal education's slump.

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

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