A Law Degree Should Be a Bachelor’s Degree

The legal job market is bad—very bad. That, at least, seems to be beyond dispute. Among lots of calls for change, here’s a (maybe somewhat) realistic one: make the study of law a bachelor’s degree rather than a graduate degree.

Before you get your Juris Doctor undies all in a bunch, think about it. Did you really need seven (or more) years of education to learn enough to become a lawyer? Even if you don’t think law school is a scam,  the fact remains that, at best, there are about half as many new real* law jobs each year as there are new JDs. Student debt loads (which are not dischargeable in bankruptcy) run well into six figures for the majority of new JDs. This just can’t continue. In comparison, bachelor’s degree programs, particularly at public universities, are affordable.

First, let’s talk about academics. It’s also beyond dispute that law school doesn’t teach you the skills you need to practice law. So what does it teach you? Lots of “scholarly” skills, to be sure, like how to decipher appellate decisions, work on an appellate brief, and similar purportedly brain-expanding efforts.

But, even if we assume, arguendo**, that it’s good to have that “scholarly” experience in order to learn to “think like a lawyer,” does one really need to already have a bachelor’s degree (in, well, anything at all, nobody cares) before taking those classes and learning those skills? And should it take three years? We’ve all heard the, “third year, they bore you to death” line—and it’s true.

It’s not difficult to imagine a bachelor’s degree in law program that would require in four years both the traditional law school classes that have broad value as well as classes in writing, negotiation, logic, speech, marketing, and management, the sum of which would create law grads with useful lawyering skills as well as able to survive as business people.  Law students could be required to  participate in clinics doing real legal work. A year-long post-graduate apprenticeship program could tie things up neatly.

This would reduce debt loads for new lawyers to such an extent that it would put downward pressure on fees. That would make more lawyers available to people who need them but currently can’t afford them. It would also significantly reduce the number of casualties in the war on despair that so many J.D.’s find themselves fighting.

*A position with no set end-date and that requires a J.D.
**See? Scholarly education! Whee!

(photo: Shutterstock)


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  • I don’t see how this addresses the problem you bring up – the legal job market – at all. It seems to me that removing barriers of entry to the field, both in time and money (and presumably the LSAT), will increase the number of lawyers being produced. I could see arguing for this change strictly on principle, but not economically.

    Additionally, I don’t believe it would decrease fees (note: I’m talking about client fees, not the salaries firms pay), just as the surplus of JDs out there right now doesn’t seem to have done so.

  • We have two problems: too many lawyers (and not enough jobs), and crazy-high debt loads for new lawyers. Reducing the cost to become a lawyer would relieve the debt load that restricts their work options. That would help them economically, no? It would also allow them to charge less for their services while paying off what debt they have. These new lower-fee lawyers would push legal fees down overall. I would cry no tears if two-thirds of the law schools closed today, but the bachelor’s degree solution would be a game-changer.

  • I disagree. I think that flooding the market with lawyers on a scale we’ve never seen before would greatly decrease people’s work options. Again, look at the number of unemployed JDs out there now – they aren’t turning down jobs that don’t pay enough to repay loans. They’d work for peanuts, but can’t find anyone willing to pay them anything. So this would be great for those lawyers who make it, by reducing their debt, but would dramatically increase the number of people who can’t get a job with their legal degree. And, again pointing to the unemployed, I don’t see legal fees dropping. I think we may be parting on the point that I don’t think legal fees are tied to actual costs of rendering services.

  • I think this would have to come with some form of loan forgiveness for recent graduates (within 5 years of graduation, maybe) that would be priced out of the market once the value of their three years in law school is reduced to—effectively—zero.

    Scott Greenfield made a similar proposal by a different name last September. He wants to create a “legal practitioner” that is somewhere between a paralegal and lawyer.

  • There are a few lively conversations going on about this on Twitter, as well. Here’s one:


    • Joe

      “Lively conversation”?

      There’s no conversation at all on that Twitter link that I can see.


  • Everyone told me there were too many lawyers when I applied to law school in 1977. My California Bar number for those in the 200,000s is 90436.

    There are NEVER enough good lawyers who offer highly skilled services at a reasonable fee. I’ve been in the profession for more than 30 years now and I can personally attest to the shockingly low quality of at least 30% of the Bar, WHEREVER they went to law school.

    You can go to Yale, for heavens’ sake, and still call your performance in. My dad went to San Fernando Valley College of the law at 38 (grad at 42) while driving a Dad’s Rootbeer Truck, supporting his three step-children and sending money home to my mom for his two biological children.

    He worked his behind off – as a solo practitioner – involved himself in party politics at the local level, joined Toastmasters and Rotary as well as many local Bar Associations, built his practice, did a fair amount of pro bono work (all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where he established that juvenile offenders could not be tried twice for the same time, once as a juvenile and again as an adult, was elevated to the status of Superior Court Commissioner (did everything a Judge did but by stipulation of the parties) and retired a satisfied and pretty well-to-do man.

    Now I know times have changed and law school tuition is higher than ever. But you can still spend your first two years at a community college (cheap), transfer to a state college (still reasonably priced) and set your sights on the subsidized State law school (here in California that would be U.C. Irvine, Hastings (a U.C.law school) U.C. Davis (my alma mater), U.C.L.A. and U.C. Berkeley.

    So, my dad’s tuition wasn’t in the 100s of thousands of dollars, but it might as well have been given his family obligations at the time he went to law school.

    Law school remains one of the best upwardly mobile professions for young people. I’ve made a living as a lawyer and I’ve made a living in other ways and the living I’ve made as a lawyer is literally 100’s of thousands of dollars better than any other profession or occupation I’ve ever tried.

    Money isn’t everything, of course, but understanding how to manipulate the levers and wheels of America’s justice system makes you a powerful actor in contributing to the well-being of the country and, eventually, the entire world.

    I do believe a 4-year undergrad education followed by an apprenticeship would be far better than the 4 + 3 years now required.

    But please please please, if you truly want a legal education, don’t let other people’s opinions stand in your way. There are never enough of anyone at the top.

    • Mo

      This is inspirational because I want to return to school as a non-traditional student. I have aspirations to attend law school and have had 3 reputable attorneys suggest that I should go. However, the reviews I read on the internet are all negative suggesting that law school is not worth your time.

  • Taye Akinola

    A great article. While I think it is a great idea to have a bachelor’s degree in law, I don’t think it would happened. The reason why I said this is because the US used to have a bachelor’s degree in law. They used to offer at an undergraduate level progressed from apprenticeships and undergraduate degrees. The US started offering and mandating JD degrees during the 19th century – that’s fairly recent.

    I think the best way to approach this is to reduce tuition, costs, and fees as well as setting up loan forgiveness programs for those who are interested in pursuing a law degree.

    And one of the commenter is right – we already have way too many people possessing a law degree, but no jobs. Many people are not deter from the cost of attending law school because of numerous reasons that I am not going to go into details.

    For me, what I took from this article is starting a dialogue. We need to continue to have a dialogue on how to control and maintain cost for attaining a law degree. It is getting out of control. But I don’t want to only focus on the high cost of a law degree. I also want to focus on the high cost of attaining a professional degree (i.e. medical degree, dentistry degree, and so forth). Those are expensive as well. I know this is a legal blog, but before we start hatching out plans to control cost, we need to figure out what is causing the high cost of attending a professional school and what can be done to change it to allow more people to have an opportunity to pursue whatever dreams their hearts desire.

  • I agree with your premise that many law schools are nothing but money grabbing scams. Especially the constant lies about post-graduate employment. However, I think your solution is a truly terrible idea. Flooding the market with new lawyers who have no idea what they are doing would push down the income of all lawyers. Think of it like a supply and demand model in economics. Even worse, many clients would receive terrible “lawyering” from these new lawyers, thus making our profession look bad yet again.

    I also think Sam’s idea of “loan forgiveness” is a bad idea. Everybody wants something for nothing now, whether it’s a free house (mortgage foregiveness), or a free top-tier graduate education (loan foregiveness). Just be responsible, nut it up, and work to pay off your debts.

    Not trying to be rude, but this is my opinion.

    • Andy Mergendahl

      We are already flooding the market with new lawyers who have no idea what they are doing, and they are in debt a hundred thousand dollars, or more. Law school does not teach you how to practice law; of that there’s no doubt. When I was a solo, I spent half my time telling people desperate for help that I couldn’t afford to represent them for a fee they could afford to pay. Is that a better state of affairs than the alternative I suggest? As for forgiving loans for recent law grads, who do you think is going to pay off all those federally-insured loans when they wind up in default? You. And me. Perhaps we could get out in front of the problem instead of kicking the can down the road. Might that be an example of “nutting it up”?

      • It’s certainly a big problem, but I just disagree with the solution. We need less lawyers being pumped out, not more. If anyone can become a lawyer just with an undergrad degree, the number of lawyers would skyrocket. Which would depress the livelihoods of all lawyers.

        If all the accredited law schools agreed to decrease enrollment by 10% over the next five years, a lot of our problems would be solved. Of course, they won’t do this because they are profit centers who don’t really care about much other than making money.

  • I hesitate to add a comment that links to my blog, but I wrote a post on this exact subject a year or so back: http://www.law21.ca/2010/09/03/law-as-an-undergraduate-degree/. I argued that the current law degree is already, in effect, an undergraduate degree — it’s basically Intro To Law, without any of the academic rigour or serious research and writing requirements that other graduate or post-graduate degrees demand as a matter of course. Convert the current J.D. to a Bachelor of Arts and offer advanced graduate law degrees in both academic (teaching careers) and practical (law practice careers) streams, and then you’re getting somewhere.

  • The point I took from the article is that law school doesn’t prepare for a real-world practice. Before a prospective client will ever tap into one’s stellar intellect, they need to be able to connect on some level–that means people skills. Topics like marketing, social interaction, client service, listening and personal branding are key, yet are no where to be found in law school curriculum. I believe what’s needs the most reform is the content and approach!

  • Katie

    Most countries other than America already have a law degree as an undergraduate degree – a three year one, at that – and people have the possibility (and the majority of the people I know have done this) to get a graduate degree in a more specific area of law, like European Union law or something of the sort. I see no reason why this wouldn’t be a better option for American law schools.

  • Guest

    The problem is federally subsidized loans driving up the cost of all education, not that law school is a graduate degree. Do you really want 18-19 year old summers handling client matters? Sophomores or Juniors being hired by a law firm before they can legally drink? This is counter to the argument that new graduates don’t have the skills they need–if they aren’t getting those skills in undergrad + 3 years of law school + summer internships, why would you think that someone who was in high school and living with their parents only a few years ago would be more capable?

    Everyone should be required to have a real job and support themselves for at least 1 year before going to law school, so they know how to interact as adults, and have more focus on clinics and internships while in law school.

  • AMK

    The legal profession should be more like the medical profession. Close the bottom 80% of the law schools. Make the LSAT into a much harder skills and knowledge test, kind of like the MCAT. Law school itself should be focused on substantive knowledge and practical skills, rather than making one “think like a lawyer”. (An undergrad program is capable of accomplishing that task.) Make the bar into an actual knowledge and skills test (testing knowledge of real law rather than MBE law), and make that much harder. Perhaps add an oral and/or skills component. Add specialty certification, like Texas has. There is no excuse for the fact that an attorney who just freshly passed the bar is useless for anything other than memo writing and Westlaw research, while a new doctor who just passed her boards is capable of practicing independently from day 1 (arguably, with much higher stakes).

    This (a) vastly increases the quality of the attorney pool and weeds out the huge number of people who have no business practicing, (b) discourages those people from spending the unnecessary money on obtaining a degree that they would not benefit from, and (c) assures a decent living for the people who are committed to the profession and who are competent enough to practice it. Unfortunately, this also will never happen.

    • sam

      As someone who doesn’t practice law, seeing this happen would infuriate me the consumer. It’s such a insecure effort to entrench yourselves with the profession. This isn’t how capitalism was meant to work, or should work. The competition should be open to all. I believe people should be able to get what they pay for. If they want to pay next to nothing for a next to nothing lawyer, let them. Level the playing fields and the ones at the top will still be worth what their value is truely worth. make law not even require a degree, why not? is it really that important if you can teach yourself outside of an academic setting?

  • Dearne

    This is how law school is run in some parts of Australia, including where I am from in Queensland. A law degree is a Bachelor’s degree, but must be undertaken simultaneously with another Bachelor’s degree over a five year period. For example, I studied for my Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Business over five years, and then as graduates we undertake a clerkship or 6 months of Practical Legal Training (PLT) through both school and work experience (prior to admission to the Supreme Court).

    Alternatively, the law degree can be undertaken via graduate entry (if the applicant already holds another Bachelor degree), but it is still considered a Bachelor. I don’t see a problem with the system to be honest. Those who are mature enough and intellectually capable enough, succeed. Those who are immature and not very smart, either drop out or don’t get job offers. Same goes for summer clerkships. Personally, I think 7 years to become a lawyer is unnecessary.

  • bob

    What needs to be done is adopt a professional degree Bachelor of Laws, not Bachelor of Arts, and make the higher degree more limited, maybe a transition step in the career, not some mandatory peace to get a job. In most parts of the world, people are given an MD for having a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery when coming to the US. Competition needs to be held high for entrance, much like medical school. Bachelors level medical school, which is the same as a doctorate in the US is extremely tough, and meant for young ones mainly just out of high school, except for graduate entry programmes. If this was used in law, the brains would all enter law.

    Do we need a 4 year bachelors before hand? In some cases it may be useful, like patent law, but is still not necessary. If you get a kid who has taken AP credits, calculus, and stuff from high school, they are just wasting time going to college, racking up more debt when they should be studying the law. In fact many of my high school literature classes were mountains more difficult than university courses.

    Lawyers are different kinds of people than doctors. In general when I meet a lawyer, they are more laid back, typically present extremely liberal morals, and have the “it don’t matter” kind of attitude. This is awesome, I like it, but these types of folks don’t have the seriousness of the medical profession. Law students and lawyers alike aren’t as serious about academics as medical doctors typically. The ones who are don’t get the reward they deserve because of saturation in the field.

    It would be interesting to compare test scores with achievement in the law field versus test scores and achievement in the medical field. Maybe in law scores aren’t where its at, which would cause an over flooding in the field, but really top lawyers come from all spectrums of scores.

    In general if you are an internal medicine doc, I could picture the guy who has the computer memory to do extremely well. Back in the day in Ireland (I think), Surgeons were thought of as a second tier doctor after Physician, where Pharmacist was held thirdly. This was because Surgeon was getting more into the hands on sort of thing earlier, and doing different, maybe less academic training than Physician. This changed very rapidly though, and Physicians and Surgeons started receiving very similar training from the beginning. This may be why some of the very old medical schools, like Columbia, use Physicians and Surgeons in the title, almost making a historical reference to the fact that they were separate bodies at time.

    I guess maybe in medicine an ACT cant do a perfect feather-lift, and maybe likewise cannot make a great criminal defense lawyer. However, I recommend some change in legal education by making a stricter barrier to entry and education requirements. This will only help the field by deterring those that don’t want to put in the time, as well as creating more opportunities for the graduates. Making a Bachelor of Laws would only admit top tier high school students, this is a good model. Secondly, making a graduate entry program with limited slots would force people to interview with compelling life stories that made them want to study the law. This program would not be for those who just on a whim, studied law because they needed a higher degree, but don’t know what to do with it. All of this would have a positive effect on the field, because when the new generation thinks of going to law school, they think, well I got to score very high in high school to get in, not slack off, get a bad GPA with a high LSAT, and get into a decent school.