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.