19 February 2013

In Debate: Should the Length of the Traditional Legal Education Be Reduced to Two Years?

by Matt Andersen, 1L Contributor

          On January 17, 2013, some of New York’s highest-ranking legal officials met at NYU Law School to discuss the unthinkable.  Leaders of the New York bar, judges, and law school faculty members were discussing a rule change, which would allow law students to sit for the New York bar exam after their second year, and, thus, forgo their final year of law school. This doesn’t mean that law schools would stop offering a third year; it would simply give students the option to skip their third year, which would save them from paying the high cost of tuition and plunge them into the work force a year ahead of their peers.
Former Indiana Supreme Court chief justice,
Randall T. Shepard, is leading a legal education reform committee.
 © Rex C. Curry/NY Times
            It is no secret that the legal profession is in the midst of serious change.  Jobs are few and far between, tuition is rising across the board, the number of applications received this year is expected to be the lowest in 30 years, and the media is putting constant pressure on law schools to reform the way they administer a legal education.

However, this is not merely about the financial aspect of the legal education. Experienced legal minds have attested that you can obtain the appropriate amount of legal education in your first two years of law school, and gaining practical experience in the work force would outweigh the necessity of furthering education into the third year.  These factors, among other things, are the reason that New York legal officials met to discuss this prospective, and opportunistic, rule change.    

           Many law schools are already indirectly addressing this through courses that offer practical training, encouraging externships, offering clinical practices where students can work one-on-one with actual clients.  Moreover, there a few schools that are currently offering accelerated program, which allows students to complete receive their Juris Doctor after just two years.

        However, not everyone agrees.  In response to the original New York Times op-ed, law student Bill Watson stated: ‘‘in any law school, the first year is devoted entirely to broad survey courses. The second and third, by contrast, combine more of the same with opportunities for practical experience and interdisciplinary study. Compressing these years into one would require the retention of the survey courses (needed to pass the bar) and the reduction or elimination of the rest. A result would be all breadth and no depth.”

            In another response to the article, Francis Fisher disagrees with Mr. Watson.  “Law firms today regularly hire after a summer internship following the second year. But the students must return to school, forgoing perhaps $100,000 in earnings and increasing debt by $50,000.”

          Ultimately, whether you think it is of financial or practical necessity, solid arguments exist on both sides of this debate.  The question is, will law schools be willing to adapt to the rapidly changing legal market, or will they flounder and possibly end up closing their doors?  It is up to the schools to determine their ultimate future, but we, as the students they are serving, can certainly help influence the way law schools make their future decisions.

Matt is a 1L at Duquesne University School of Law and a JURIS_Blog contributor.