Let Markets Decide the Length of Law School

The long-simmering dispute over the length of legal education has just received a new voice now that President Obama, who for many years taught law on a part-time basis at the University of Chicago, has voiced his tentative support for a two-year legal education.

This movement has been spurred by two related facts. The first is the real cost pinch for law school graduates. The second is the common perception that the basic skills of a lawyer are largely learned in the first year, after which the rest is mostly icing on the cake — a luxury that most people cannot afford. In support of this last proposition it is commonly said that Abraham Lincoln did not turn out so badly even though he never attended law school at all.

That argument actually helps explain what is wrong with the argument in favor of the two-year law school. The huge explosion of statutory materials and the ever-larger volume of complex litigation in the modern era makes it odd that the three-year legal education went unremarked upon in the past, yet comes up today when there is so much more information that has to be learned. 

I have taught a large number of students at all levels, and I think that good instruction at the third year of education still adds real value to the curriculum. For students who are destined to work in the top part of the profession, the third year repays itself. Indeed, if we did not have a three-year legal education, the number of LL.M. programs in certain specialties would probably increase, just as the amount of continuing legal education would even in the absence of state mandates to that effect.

Now, all of these propositions are  subject to dispute. The proponents of the two-year program have a point when they say that the shape of legal education should not be determined by the ukases of the American Bar Association. Remove that constraint and different students with different skills and ambitions can purchase the legal education that best fits their tastes.  Then you’ll have  no reason to make educated guesses as to whether the shorter program will prove viable in the current climate.

I have no idea what the President thinks will happen, if he has thought about that issue at all. My guess is that the market will segment if the three-year requirement is removed. There is no harm in finding out by experience how an open market will respond to the many forces that  buffet legal education.

  1. Beowulf
    Amy Schley

    Beowulf’s accountant

     

    Amy Schley:

     

    Except that more required courses doesn’t necessarily equate to better, more employable lawyers either.  

    It still has 40% unemployment rate in its recent graduates. · 6 hours ago

      I can’t argue with “necessarily.” You are right about that.  But can you explain to me how cutting a year off the curriculum will make law students more employable.  Because I don’t see that.  My view is that the high unemployment rate for law school grads is because the market for beginning lawyers is saturated. So if you are in law school you better damn well know what sort of practice you want to do and prepare yourself for it.  
  2. Beowulf
    Douglas

    Beowulf’s accountant

    .

     

    “Better lawyers” isn’t the answer. More years in law school isn’t the answer. Less law, and clearer, more commonsense law is the answer.  · 6 hours ago

    I hear you.  But that ship has sailed, run into the iceberg and sank with all hands.  There will never be less law, it will grow like a cancer year by year, and commonsense ain’t in it. It only remains to see how is best to train lawyers to deal with it.  YMMW but less isn’t more in my opinion.

  3. mikesixes

    Hey, 2-year law programs can produce 50% more lawyers in a given amount of time! Lord knows we need more lawyers, right?

  4. Amy Schley

    And let’s throw some numbers at this …

    Shrink the years law school takes by a third, and you increase the number of new law graduates by a third.  When half of us can’t get jobs as it is, is adding to our numbers really what is best for law school graduates?

    Not that law professors really care about plebeian things like whether their graduates get jobs.

  5. Chris Campion

    With the glut of attorneys, are we actually considering setting the bar even lower to acquire the degree?  Make it four years and see what the market does.

  6. Beowulf
    Douglas: Most other western countries practice law with only the equivalent of a  bachelors degree.

     

    Amy Schley:

     

    mikesixes: Hey, 2-year law programs can produce 50% more lawyers in a given amount of time! Lord knows we need more lawyers, right? · 1 hour ago

    With all due respect to the three of you, I think you may miss the point.  I attended law school for nearly three years before I came to my senses.  Professor Epstein’s point that the law is far more complex than even a generation ago is quite right.  We need better lawyers not more, or fewer, for that matter.  The current law school curriculum falls down, in my view, because there is no structure past the first year.  Law schools need to rethink this.  Imagine if in college you had no required courses past the first year, yet upon graduation  your institution deemed you qualified for all jobs.

  7. Amy Schley
    Beowulf’s accountant

    Amy Schley

    Beowulf’s accountant

     

    Amy Schley:

    Except that more required courses doesn’t necessarily equate to better, more employable lawyers either.  

    It still has 40% unemployment rate in its recent graduates. · 6 hours ago

      I can’t argue with “necessarily.” You are right about that.  But can you explain to me how cutting a year off the curriculum will make law students more employable.  Because I don’t see that.  My view is that the high unemployment rate for law school grads is because the market for beginning lawyers is saturated. So if you are in law school you better damn well know what sort of practice you want to do and prepare yourself for it.   · 2 hours ago

    Exactly.  Which is why I don’t think getting rid of the third year has anything to do with trying to help law school grads.

  8. Chris Campion
    Beowulf’s accountant

    Douglas

    Beowulf’s accountant

    .

     

     

    “Better lawyers” isn’t the answer. More years in law school isn’t the answer. Less law, and clearer, more commonsense law is the answer.  · 6 hours ago

    I hear you.  But that ship has sailed, run into the iceberg and sank with all hands.  There will never be less law, it will grow like a cancer year by year, and commonsense ain’t in it. It only remains to see how is best to train lawyers to deal with it.  YMMW but less isn’t more in my opinion.

    This same assumption is made by ERP system managers until their ERP system is eventually replaced with one that works better, faster, cheaper, and doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of man-hours per year to keep up and running.

    In other words, if you’re just hiring people to be able to navigate the mess that’s coming out of DC by people who are largely lawyers, then it’s the system itself that is corrupt – not the people who work in it.  

    But accepting the status quo is probably 90% of the problem. So stop taking it lying down.

  9. Amy Schley
    Beowulf’s accountant

    Douglas: Most other western countries practice law with only the equivalent of a  bachelors degree.

    Amy Schley:

     With all due respect to the three of you, I think you may miss the point.  I attended law school for nearly three years before I came to my senses.  Professor Epstein’s point that the law is far more complex than even a generation ago is quite right.  We need better lawyers not more, or fewer, for that matter.  The current law school curriculum falls down, in my view, because there is no structure past the first year.  Law schools need to rethink this.  Imagine if in college you had no required courses past the first year, yet upon graduation  your institution deemed you qualified for all jobs. · 2 hours ago

    Except that more required courses doesn’t necessarily equate to better, more employable lawyers either.  My law school requires another 30 or so credit hours of specific classes — Civil Procedure, Federal Taxation, Business Organization, Evidence, Ethics, Commercial Paper/Secured Transactions,  Criminal Law, a jurisprudence class, a 30 page research paper out of independent research …

    It still has 40% unemployment rate in its recent graduates.

  10. Douglas
    Beowulf’s accountant

    Douglas: Most other western countries practice law with only the equivalent of a  bachelors degree.

     

    Amy Schley:

     

    mikesixes: Hey, 2-year law programs can produce 50% more lawyers in a given amount of time! Lord knows we need more lawyers, right? · 1 hour ago

    With all due respect to the three of you, I think you may miss the point.  I attended law school for nearly three years before I came to my senses.  Professor Epstein’s point that the law is far more complex than even a generation ago is quite right.  We need better lawyers not more, or fewer, for that matter.  The current law school curriculum falls down, in my view, because there is no structure past the first year.  Law schools need to rethink this.  Imagine if in college you had no required courses past the first year, yet upon graduation  your institution deemed you qualified for all jobs. · 3 hours ago

    “Better lawyers” isn’t the answer. More years in law school isn’t the answer. Less law, and clearer, more commonsense law is the answer. 

  11. Tom in Chicago

    I graduated from law school two years ago.  Although I instinctively agree with the premise that a two year program would be sufficient to prepare someone for the bar exam (and perhaps it would be wise to permit students to jump that hurdle sooner, rather than have them fret about it for their entire third year), I think the professor’s point is well taken.  So many areas of law have become so specialized that even my newly-practicing colleagues feel that they are justbeginningto gain expertise in their respective areas, despite the fact they’ve been full-time practitioners for two years! 

    That said, I spent much of my third year wishing I could already be done with the bar exam, and that I could do something analogous to a med student’s “residency” in a variety areas of law so that I had a more concrete sense of the day-to-day work required of a lawyer in a particular area of practice.  Perhaps remunerative areas of laws could pay reasonable (but not full) salaries for extended fellowships instead of requiring tens of thousands more in tuition for LLM programs. 

     

  12. Asquared

    Dr. Epstein, if we are to let the market decide on the length of law school, why should law schools be the only path to admission to the Bar?  Why should young people not be allowed to read law as Abraham Lincoln did and bypass law school altogether?

    NB: I ask this as a non-lawyer and yes, I do recognize it is still allowed in a few states.

  13. ctlaw

    Remember, the Supreme Court has said that having a three-year state  law school that is recognized as being elite because of its “diversity” is a compelling state interest.

    How could they impose “diversity” on self-study?

    Asquared: Dr. Epstein, if we are to let the market decide on the length of law school, why should law schools be the only path to admission to the Bar?  Why should young people not be allowed to read law as Abraham Lincoln did and bypass law school altogether?

    NB: I ask this as a non-lawyer and yes, I do recognize it is still allowed in a few states. · 3 minutes ago

    Edited 0 minutes ago

  14. Douglas

    Most other western countries practice law with only the equivalent of a  bachelors degree. There’s absolutely no reason why the United States can’t do the same.