Should Law School Last Two Years?

by Tracy R. Walsh

Obama thinks it should:

This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it,” Obama said during a stop at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years because [….] in the first two years young people are learning in the classroom.” In the third year, he said, “they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

Ed Kilgore cheers:

It’s been a long time since I was in law school, and I gather schools have gotten better at offering practical experience both in-class and in out-of-class placements. But it’s long been a byword among young lawyers that an extraordinarily high percentage of instruction has been irrelevant to the actual practice of law, unless you take very seriously such chestnuts as the critical importance of learning to “think like a lawyer.” For one thing, an awful lot of law students, in my experience, have been “thinking like a lawyer” since about the third grade, which made them very unpopular children. More importantly, the cult of legal education seems to depend on the perpetuation of what amounts to an intellectual hazing system, where the student’s tolerance for tedious content, arbitrary testing, and self-imposed pressure is presumably preparation for the agonies of being on the low end of the professional totem pole for years.

But Martha Nussbaum and Charles Wolf worry that two-year degree programs would worsen the quality of legal education. And Matt Bodie claims shorter programs may not offer tuition savings:

If someone magically changed the J.D. program at my law school to two years, I wouldn’t shrug my shoulders and go, “Oh well  guess we’re only two years now!” I would work with my colleagues to figure out how we could make those two years meet the needs of our students  and pack as much in as possible. If the same U.S. News rankings remained in place, don’t you think schools would continue to compete on class size, expenses per student, and educational reputation? And wouldn’t that drive up costs? What if, in the new two-year law school, we added a clinical component, an externship component, and a 10-person small section component to the basic Contracts class, and then assigned it to a doctrinal professor, two clinical professors, and four adjuncts? That would be a better class, no?  But it’d also be a lot more expensive. A school could easily justify spending $60,000 or more a year per student  again, if the market rewarded schools for offering such classes.

Meanwhile Elie Mystal, who says he spent his third year of law school drinking and playing Madden, describes Obama’s call as “literally the least useful thing he could have done” for the two-year cause:

If Obama wants oversight over things like “how long does law school have to be,” he could have instructed the U.S. Department of Education to assume regulatory authority. Or at the very least, he could have had the Education Department signal to the ABA that its rules limiting experimentation with two-year law school programs needed to stop. … [Instead,] Obama just told the ABA, “Don’t mind me, I’m just a lame duck who intends to spend zero political capital bringing about substantive change.”

The average indebted law student in the class of 2012 graduated with $108,293 in loans, Carmel Lobello notes.