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.