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.