Should We Shorten Law School?

Above the Law reports on some interesting proposals to shorten law school to essentially two years. Arizona is apparently allowing students to take the bar exam in February of their third year and spend the preceding autumn taking bar review courses.

I think this is a big mistake, just as I think students do themselves a disservice when they try  to get into practice early and reduce their coursework by substituting externships and so on for standard law school classes.

Students, understandably, think the third year of law school, where electives predominate, is a waste — after all, they often secure their post-graduation job based on their summer job between their 2L and 3L years.

I suppose the argument for a 3L year is the same one that is used to justify the teaching of great books or the liberal arts in college — and it’s one with which I tend to agree. Students should be required to read Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Federalist Papers (none of which, I believe, are required at Harvard College). Not only does it deepen their knowledge of the civilization in which they are citizens and help them think through the eternal questions, it’s also a source of opportunity. They may well be the next great Shakespearean scholar — but they won’t know it unless they experience it. In the same way, the range of subjects that are possible to learn about in the third year of law school open students up to a number of new frontiers. Skipping this process may actually reduce choice rather than enhancing it.

I think the argument for shortening law school is made mostly by students, who are by nature short-sighted. They should talk to retiring lawyers to get a better perspective. How many lawyers, after a career of 30 years, would say, “Yes, I sure am glad I got into practice one year earlier and had a career of 30 years instead of 29.”

Instead, I bet most would say,”I am glad that I got to take more courses in that last year of my education.” Indeed, a lawyer may find the subject that becomes the focus of their career because they happen to take a course, by chance, in their third year.

Students may miss the opportunity to become the next great intellectual property, antitrust, or religion lawyer if they have only two years to try to cram in all of the courses on the bar exam. They won’t have as much chance once they are in practice. Big firms make money by having highly specialized experts on narrow areas of law; it is harder and harder to change fields significantly and to gain knowledge of new areas mid-stream. Thus, truncating a law school education may actually end up limiting lawyers’ options down the road.

  1. Trace

    I would be sympathetic to your argument John if law school were not so hideously expensive.  Perhaps the right answer is that an extra year exists for those that hope to clerk or teach, but that only two years is required to sit for the bar and to practice.It is, after all, a very fancy, job training school. Abraham Lincoln, after all, had even fewer than two years of law school. 

  2. Jolly Roger

    Speaking as a graduate, law school is generally a waste. Everything that is taught in school could actually be taught in just one year. Lawyers should be hired in as in England on a 2 year trainee basis. The pupil lawyer gets 4 rotations of 6 months in different fields to learn a lot of different things up front. They can be paid very little, so it is not a potential deadweight loss like the $160k+benefits for a newly minted corporate attorney. Some great legal mind as Trace mentioned had only 1 year of formal legal training. Some poor legal minds had three plus (thinking of two gentlemen in Washington…)

  3. Jojo

    Longer, I say.  Twenty five years sounds about right.

  4. Raymond Keneipp

    John,

    I am not a lawyer and have never been to law school I am an electronics engineer with an MBA so its hard for me to have an opinion since you didn’t give us non-lawyers any information about what students study in their 3rd year .

  5. DocJay

    The first the we should do is…….

  6. DocJay

    If they want to be trial lawyers then have a scenario like the Hunger Games.  Put them all in an arena with weapons and let them forge alliances and break them while they hack/slice/slaughter their way to a degree.   Winner take all baby.  

  7. Peter Meza
    Raymond Keneipp: John,

    I am not a lawyer and have never been to law school I am an electronics engineer with an MBA so its hard for me to have an opinion since you didn’t give us non-lawyers any information about what students study in their 3rd year . · 12 minutes ago

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_school_in_the_United_States#Curriculum

    The basic courses are out of the way in the first year, and maybe some in the second year.  These courses are the kind that are tested in bar exams.  The second and third year are mostly electives.  The third year is generally considered a total waste of time if your goal is to minimize your expenses and start billing hours as soon as possible.

  8. TheSophist

    I think I’d rather see a 2/4 approach, where the JD takes two years but the full load is a LLM at the end of four years.

    The comparison to the liberal arts is inapt, because law school is still, at its core, a trade school. The same as medical school. Or Apex Tech.

    If further specialization is the goal, then schools should accept all students into a JD/LLM program, with the option to graduate after just the JD. The 3rd and 4th years, then, can focus on the specialty with a good amount of clinical education and/or internships.

    Third year truly is a waste; most of my classmates spent it loafing off (if they had an offer from the 2L summer program) or desperately looking for a job (if they didn’t).

  9. Schrodinger

    As a non-practicing law school grad, I agree that law school is really only the first step to learning how to be a lawyer. It is all concept and little practical knowledge. A two year program would be possible if law school became more like undergrad where a student was required to declare a major.

    In law school, make the first year a study of basic legal concepts. Then require each student to declare a specialty to concentrate on in second year. Specialties would include trial law (criminal or civil), corporate law, tax & estate law, regulatory law, Constitutional law, intellectual property law, etc.

    If law has become so specialized, then law schools should let students specialize.

  10. Matthew K. Tabor

    John, based on your argument, there wouldn’t be a compelling reason not to extend legal education to a fourth year. Why not?

  11. John Walker

    It seems to me one of the main reasons for the higher education bubble is that students are treated as supplicants seeking a credential rather than customers (many of whom go into crippling debt to obtain their credential).

    In the law, where in many states passing the bar examination is the essential credential to enter practice, why not let the customers (students) determine how much preparation they require for this rite of passage, and how much broadening of their perspective they wish to purchase at the forbidding cost law schools charge?

    There is another thing to consider.  My background is not in the law, but rather computer science and engineering.  In the U.S., most graduates in my cohort entered the workforce around age 21 with a BS degree.  In Europe, many pursued a doctorate and didn’t enter industry until their mid-20s.  Thus, they spent their most creative and energetic years doing academic work largely prescribed by their thesis advisers rather than building a career in their own name.

    Consequences?  Compare the computer industries of the U.S. and those of Germany and France.

    Why can’t lawyers learn on their own as engineers routinely do?

  12. genferei

    My one-step plan for improving the US – replace Civil Procedure with Jurisprudence in 1L. No one should be able to receive a university degree in Law without struggling with the concept of justice. It should be entirely possible to spend your life as a lawyer without touching litigation.

  13. kesbar

    Even better, why can’t accreditation be offshored to where schooling and labor are cheaper.  Wouldn’t an army of Indian and Chinese lawyers with credentials to practice law in America help with the incredibly high cost of law degrees by pushing down lawyers wages thereby reducing demand for said degrees?  We might end up with affordable legal services.

    Perhaps we should do the same with Doctors.

  14. EJHill

    I say lengthen it.

    The first year is to be spent at hard manual labor.

    Second year they should spend on an ambulance rotation. Hey, find out what goes on inside then chase them later.

    For Illinois residents planning a career in politics, a year behind bars. That way their post-election stays aren’t as big a shock to the system.

  15. Peter Meza
    kesbar: Even better, why can’t accreditation be offshored to where schooling and labor are cheaper.  Wouldn’t an army of Indian and Chinese lawyers with credentials to practice law in America help with the incredibly high cost of law degrees by pushing down lawyers wages thereby reducing demand for said degrees?  We might end up with affordable legal services.

    Perhaps we should do the same with Doctors. · 17 minutes ago

    From first hand knowledge: an army of Indian “lawyers” is already working on US legal matters under the supervision of US attorneys in law firms and by corporations.  The basic grunt work can be done by anyone, as long as someone who has passed the bar signs off on it.

  16. DocJay
    kesbar: Even better, why can’t accreditation be offshored to where schooling and labor are cheaper.  Wouldn’t an army of Indian and Chinese lawyers with credentials to practice law in America help with the incredibly high cost of law degrees by pushing down lawyers wages thereby reducing demand for said degrees?  We might end up with affordable legal services.

    Perhaps we should do the same with Doctors. · 32 minutes ago

    We are doing the same with doctors.  FMG’s are increasing in number.  Usually their skills exceed their mastery of English which is often difficult for the elderly.

  17. Ramblin

    Law should be a five year undergraduate course of study followed by a one year apprenticeship.  The student graduates with a bachelor of law, takes and passes the bar exam, and then practices under the tutelage of a fully licensed lawyer.  Law schools can then dedicate themselves to providing LLMs in intellectual property, antitrust, religion, etc.  The JD is then awarded to guys named Yoo and Epstein.

  18. Giantkiller

    Shortening law school is because of cost or “lawyers” who can’t pass the bar or loafing 3Ls is not a logical response to the problem.  Reducing the number of law schools, insisting on the rigor of the old methods rather than new social consciousness coddling and grade curves, AND then a period of practical work experience would tend to address some of the issues surrounding the legal profession in our country.  Still, these sorts of questions and debates are applicable to pretty much an real field of endeavor.  No one said Lincoln was a very good lawyer, except his mythologizers – after all, he became a politician pretty early on.

  19. Nick Stuart

    It would cut the expense of time and money by 1/3. 

    Not everybody is interested in or cut out to be a big-time corporate lawyer or prestigious law school professor.

    Not everybody who needs a simple will, simple guardianship, or other simple matter handled can afford a big shot attorney.

  20. Scarlet Pimpernel

    It is the job of undergraduate education to teach liberal arts. Unfortunately, liberal arts Professors don’t seem to do a very good job of it.  Instead, Professor Yoo suggests that Law Professors do it.  Are they any better at teaching Shakespeare, the Federalist, or Coke, or Aristotle, or Cicero? I doubt it.  And given today’s law profs, what do you think will actually be taught in such classes? My guess is that there will be a great deal of Lefty advocacy, pretending to be serious study of serious things.

    Most law students are seeking training for a job, and, unless they have a truly inspiring teacher, are not going to get the benefit of such classes. Instead, they will resent them. 

    And the best way to weaken the Law professoriat, and hence a part of the Lefty coalition, is to reduce the number of teaching jobs at law school.

    Personally, I don’t see why we can’t go back to the old system, under which students take the bar when they think they’re ready.  Requiring students to get through law school is a protection racket for law schools.