Law School: Is Two Years Enough?

On January 22, 2013, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Experts Debate Two Year Law School Option.” According to the article, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is interested in a proposal that would allow law students to sit for the New York Bar Exam after completing only two years of law school. The proposal was made at New York Law School on January 18 during a panel discussion on legal education. Some reasons cited for the proposal include the rising cost of a law school education and the poor job market, along with the perception that the third year of law school consists mostly of “filler” classes without much value.

In theory, allowing students to take the bar exam and become licensed after completing only two years (60 credits) law school instruction would save students money and afford them the opportunity to take lower paying jobs to help provide for the legal needs of financially strapped clients. But the lawyers I see graduating with large law school debt are not foregoing lower paying jobs because they cannot afford them; there simply are not enough jobs to go around at any rate of pay.

But how will allowing law students to sit for the bar exam and enter the legal workforce one year early help their chances of obtaining legal employment? And will law schools be willing to give up one full year of law school tuition?

Proponents argue that the proposal would force law schools to ensure that they are providing value to third year students to justify the cost of the ‘extra’ year of law school. But clinical programs, which are some of the most valuable third year offerings, are often the most expensive for law schools and the first to be cut from the curriculum. If a diminishing number of students attend third year will fewer clinical programs be offered, or worse, will they be eliminated entirely?

Is the answer to the rising cost of a law school education to give students the option of paying only 2/3 of the law school fee by cutting out one year of school? Is the answer to the ‘filler’ classes offered by many schools in the third year to eliminate (or provide the option to eliminate) that year entirely? Or does it make more sense to explore ways to decrease the cost of law school education, find different ways to require law schools to provide quality classes, and to use the third year to prepare students for the real world?

During the discussion at NYU, one Brooklyn judge suggested that one year of classes and one year of internships might be a workable formula for law school, citing the model of medical schools. But medical school requires many more classroom credits before the internship begins, not fewer. Is one year of classes really enough to educate lawyers on all they need to know, given the complexity of the legal market today?

The medical model and internships is a good one to emulate, but it should not reduce classroom education to a single year.

While two years may have been the norm for law school in years past, times have changed. Young lawyers no longer have the luxury of entering the legal workforce as associates and receiving on the job training from their firms. With the explosion of non-legal service providers such as Legal Zoom and the proliferation of available information on the internet, clients have more options than ever before. And many of them are unwilling to pay for young associates to get up to speed. That means fewer positions for inexperienced lawyers and/or higher training costs for law firms who can no longer pass those costs on to clients.

The poor job market also means that more young lawyers will be venturing out on their own directly from law school. Supporters of the two year option argue that it would pave the way for young lawyers to spend that third year as licensed attorneys getting on the job training in apprenticeship programs. But this is an unlikely option given that law firms would have to pay these attorneys and train them. The current tax laws prohibit positions which would be merely for experience without pay, and law firms are dealing with the same difficult economic and financial circumstances as other businesses; they are looking for ways to reduce costs, not increase them.

Don’t forget that Chief Judge Lippman recently instituted a requirement in New York that new lawyers must complete 50 hours of pro bono representation before being admitted to practice law, regardless of the number of years they attend school.

Although there are currently some law schools, including Northwestern, Southwestern and the University of Dayton, which provide accelerated programs that allow students to graduate after two years instead of three, those programs include a full load of credits and go through the summer, giving students a full 12 months of classes.

While it is clear that the current law school format needs to be changed, reducing the number of years of schooling for lawyers is not the answer. Quite the opposite. The third year should be retained, but it should be overhauled to include subjects traditionally not taught (and certainly not required) in most law schools, including practice management, law firm finance, client service and technology. These are essential skills and areas of knowledge that may have formerly been learned on the job as a young associate, but now that so many recent graduates are hanging out their own shingles immediately after graduation and firms are seeking young lawyers who need less training and can hit the ground running, law schools need to pick up the slack and provide this education. To do anything less is a disservice to law students who are ill equipped for the realities of the practice of law and a disservice to the public who need legal services.

The third year of law school should also include some required clinical programs to give law students a real life look at the day to day practice of law and help them not only gain experience (including the required pro bono hours), but also give them a better frame of reference to help t hem decide what area of practice they would like to pursue. This would be more similar to the medical school model, with rotation through different areas of practice, followed by further practical experience in a chosen field.

As Tom Mighell, past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Management Section said in his 2010 IgniteLaw speech before the 2011 ABA TECHSHOW, No Lawyer Left Behind , most law schools do not provide practice management education, and this omission needs to be rectified by employing practicing lawyers to teach these subjects, making them requirements for graduation, and including a practical component. As it stands now, many law faculty members are not practicing lawyers and they are not familiar with the realities of practicing law today and the technology it requires. Many lawyers think they don’t need technology training, and solo and small firm lawyers, who may need it the most, think they need it the least. Providing this education as a mandatory part of law school would certainly be an improvement over the current system and a more viable solution than simply eliminating a full year of legal education.



  1. Avatar john_d says:

    “Is the answer to the rising cost of a law school education to give students the option of paying only 2/3 of the law school fee by cutting out one year of school? ”

    lol at the suggestion that schools would voluntarily cut their revenue by 1/3. The balance of economic surplus in the law school transaction is soundly on the side of law schools. Tuition pricing has next to no relation of the actual costs of providing instruction, and it’s more of a question of “How much can we charge these suckers?”

    • John,

      I don’t think the schools would voluntarily cut their revenue, but if the state gives law students the ability to take the Bar Exam after only two years of school (leaving the three year option of obtaining an actual law degree intact, which is the proposal), the practical effect would be that some law students opt out of the third year, and if they don’t attend, they’ll be paying 1/3 less than those who choose to continue with the full three years.

      • Avatar john_d says:

        There’s an optional extra year in the status quo. It’s called the LL.M (and at snooty schools, the SJD). Nearly no one opts to take it. I imagine that if given the option to forgo the third year, approximately similar numbers of students would volunteer for the third year as currently do for the LL.M. Law schools would adjust their pricing accordingly to keep revenue up, and the end result would be a reduction in the quality of legal education with little corresponding reduction in cost.

  2. Two things:

    1. In the first paragraph, you write: “The proposal was made at New York Law School on January 18”. Actually it was made at NYU Law, not NYLS. You get this right a few paragraphs down.
    2. Isn’t whether this proposal is good or not an empirical question? The proposal might help things, might not. But probably wouldn’t do grave damage to try (if students choose to get admitted after two years and find it doesn’t work out well for them, presumably they will be able to go back to law school and finish their JD; there is no reason to think an extra year of law school will have an impact on ethics violations, and it’s highly unlikely to add gravely under-qualified lawyers to the market). Personally, I think it’s very possible the best firms would hire some star students after only two years if they could. But maybe not. There’s one good way to find out. Or we could just go back and forth with arguments for years.
    • Noah,

      Thanks for pointing out the error.

      Since I don’t have it in my power to make the decision, all I can do is comment on the idea. I personally think that more education (although not necessarily in the classroom) would be helpful and that the claimed benefits of allowing students to take the bar exam and be admitted to practice after only two years of law school won’t be borne out.

  3. Avatar Craig says:

    My school has intern/externships available, and numerous ties to a rather small legal community surrounding the school. We constantly have judges and local lawyers in the school for presentations and to meet students. We already do 50 hours of substantive legal work to graduate (I’m only a 1L but I am the main contact for a program dealing with parental rights for people being incarcerated). We get to attend all CLEs in the area for free or at a severely reduced cost.

    Our professors have all practiced in one area or another for a significant amount of time, and we’re paired with a local attorney mentor from day 1 and attend various legal functions with them (Including learning how a practice works).

    The technology issue is the only one that I worry about, but honestly, that’s a lot of why I look at the lawyerist. I get a lot of nice tips like using text expanders, or why to switch to a mac (I still like my PC).


  4. Allison,

    “There are simply not enough jobs to go around at any rate of pay.”

    I respectfully disagree. Certainly there are not enough legal jobs to go around that allow lawyers to pay off their crushing debt and also pay the rent. However, there is a tremendous need for motivated lawyers to serve low-income clients or to otherwise use their legal skills for the public good.

    I founded what is now the largest immigration-law firm on Long Island 17 years ago, but only after volunteering hundreds of hours for a refugee agency. Through pro-bono and low-bono work, I gained the skills and expertise to start my own firm.

    If someone goes to law school just to make money, perhaps they would be well-advised to choose another profession (unless Daddy runs the family firm). But if a lawyer is motivated and passionate, law school could be an excellent choice, whether for two or three years. Personally, I learned almost everything on the job.

    • Avatar Static says:

      While I assume that you didn’t harm too many immigrants during your learning process, there remains a gap in your reasoning. Getting paid isn’t just a matter of going into law “just for the money,” but feeding one’s children and putting a roof over their heads.

      Some lawyers would love to spend their days doing pro bono, serving the poor, but they need to eat in the meantime. Don’t denigrate them because you were able to manage. You might also want to consider whether the duty to provide legal services to the poor is an individual burden on lawyers, a professional burden or more properly a burden on a society that doesn’t care to spend its money that way, leaving lawyers to pick up the slack at their own expense.

      As well-intended as some lawyers may be, no landlord gives them pro bono office space. See how that works?

    • David,

      If you’re talking pro-bono or volunteer work, that’s one thing. But I don’t consider $0 a rate of pay, and I don’t consider volunteer work, as good an experience as it might be for the lawyers and as helpful as it might be for those who receive the services, to be a job. I was talking about legal jobs where lawyers actually receive a salary. The employer still has to be able to pay. From what I can see, there are still only a limited number of those jobs to go around and more lawyers than there are available jobs -even at low rates of pay.

  5. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    As former Rep. Gabby Gifford said about controlling gun violence, “This will be hard.”

    The confluence of a changed and changing job market, increased number of law students from an ever-increasing number of law schools (shame on you, ABA), and students graduating with crushing and un-serviceable debt loads will require at least:

    1. faculty teaching more courses and earning less money;
    2. steep decline in class size (seems to be happening already); and
    3. law schools closing (I predict that between 10 and 20 will close within 10 years).

    Balanced out, law schools will have to:
    1. teach more practical-hands-on courses, including expensive student-to-faculty ratio clinics;
    2. create paths for finishing in 2-1/2 years;
    3. under the umbrella of practice management tracks, include the multi-tasking “job search skills = business development skills” concepts that can be enhanced by collaborating with career services and alumni relations professional. Having practice management in a silo, ignoring the professionals with some of the most relevant experience is short-sighted, and a foolish waste of resources; and
    4. Perhaps consider having one or more of its clinics be fee-generating plaintiff’s practices, an idea floated years ago by a fore-sighted dean candidate who was sent packing just as fast as shocked faculty members could get him back to the airport.

    Finally, most administrators will have to stay strong to protect their administrator core. Where once education was a blackboard and a box of chalk, 21st century education requires:
    1. expensive technology supported by experienced professionals;
    2. a cadre of affiliated professionals providing services to students who would scream bloody murder without enough student services and career services support;
    3. senior administrators whose everyday dealings with the parent university and its complex demands (budget, facilities management, human resources, etc.), state and local government, the local, state, and national bars and accreditation organizations, and the ever-favorite “hair-on-fire-crisis du jour” are critical to continuing to keeping the doors open and the school accredited.

  6. Avatar Stephen Wood says:

    I think it would be great if the third year was spent doing a mandatory internship (with modest pay) similar to medical graduates or law graduates in Canada (“articling”).

  7. Avatar Marc Luber says:

    Allison, I couldn’t agree more. Focusing the 3rd year on real life stuff is the way to go. Practical skills, hands-on work experience, etc. I would add one more thing: general practical career skills. As a headhunter, I found that way too many lawyers were unaware of how to interview for a job, how to interact with a boss or an assistant or a receptionist or even with peers at a networking cocktail party. These are all critical aspects of a career after graduation. Not everyone needs to be a laugh-a-minute extrovert and it’s unlikely to have a personality change at the age of 25 and above. However, there are many career-oriented skills that can be taught and coached in school. The schools that embrace this and add that kind of value to the JD experience will benefit as institutions and benefit their students.

  8. Avatar r. dernister says:

    I think the problem is not enough education, certainly nowhere near enough practical training. I like the English system: three years of law school followed by an apprenticeship to become a solicitor or a barrister. We have far too many incompetent lawyers in the U.S.

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