How Switching to a Two-Year Law Degree Hoses Law Students

One common suggestion throughout legal ed reform discussions is reducing law school from three years to two. The argument is that the third year is useless, so dump it. I should say right now that I don’t think it’s a good idea, not because the third year is useful but because cutting legal education down is an arbitrary solution. We should ask the inverse question, “How long should law school be?” instead of “How much should we cut?” Law school has two urgent problems: over-enrollment and excessive cost. Reducing it by a year does not address the former at all, and the problem with tuition isn’t just that it’s too high but that it’s perpetually increasing over the inflation rate. Eliminating the third year treats law school tuition like kudzu: At some point, it’ll just grow back. That’s not the only problem though; allow this stylized animation to illustrate:

Notice how cutting a year out of law school automatically dumps an extra class of law graduates onto the market. The 3Ls in this situation paid the maximum value for the worst job prospects, adding to the already existing bottleneck that’s omitted here. Many of these grads are certain to never find work as attorneys, and tens of thousands of new solo practices are just not going to work.

The counterargument is, cynically yet intellectually honestly, “They weren’t going to get jobs as lawyers anyway, so it’s just accelerating the inevitable.” Fine, but that just demonstrates that eliminating the third year doesn’t really solve anything. The same number of law students go in, and the same number come out without any long term improvement to the graduates-to-jobs ratio. It just deflates some of the law school bubble without requiring anyone to make the very tough choices, i.e. how to reduce enrollments (hint, closing and consolidating law schools and laying off unneeded faculty) and what to do with those students already in the system. This is a reason current law students should start taking direct action instead of waiting for the ABA to come up with a solution.

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3 Responses

  1. At the other end of the spectrum, even with the existing three year law school programs, law school graduates still need to spend their first several years learning practical skills, which law schools largely eschew. The system of having law firms train young lawyers worked just fine for the past fifty years or so, particularly as law firms were able to fill their own coffers by charging clients for the time spent by first and second year lawyers learning basic skills. But as the demand/supply fulcrum shifted the power to the buyers of legal services, they are no longer shelling out money for this training regimen. Thus, what we also need is a new system for training lawyers to actually do the day to day lawyering, See, http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2011/10/27/now-that-clients-won%e2%80%99t-pay-for-training-young-associates-how-are-we-going-to-teach-young-lawyers-the-skills-of-lawyering/

  2. I have to disagree with those that say that there is an issue with law graduates not knowing practical skills. I come from a law school whose main emphasis was practical skills. By the time I graduated law school, I had conducted 5 full-length trials and had written numerous contracts, briefs, court opinions, complaints, answers, motions, etc. I had also worked for a federal judge.

    None of that did me any good. Like almost all the law graduates today, I work in a field that is completely unrelated to law, after being unable to find any PAID legal work about a year and a half after graduating. (There are, I should note, plenty of unpaid opportunities – those seem to abound and I worked in several of those before I realized that I was financially destroying myself.) Despite my fellow graduates graduating knowing far more practical skills than the average law graduate, most ended up working in retail.

    The point I am trying to make is that it’s not that law school graduates are graduating unprepared. Those that graduate prepared and ready to hit the ground running still don’t have work as well. I should mention that employers still favor prestigious schools and it’s the upstart schools who emphasize practical skills in an effort to compete against the namebrand schools. The namebrand schools tend to hold onto the traditional models of teaching, which rarely incorporate teaching practical skills. Yet, it’s students from the upstart schools – the ones who came from schools that emphasized practical skills – who are having the hardest time in the market. If the problem were truly that graduates weren’t learning the required skill sets before graduation, then we would see the graduates from schools that emphasize practical skills having a leg up on those who graduate from schools that don’t. But we don’t see that.

    The problem is that there just isn’t a demand for legal work and the skill sets that law graduates have – whether they have learned practical skills or not. Once I made the decision to leave the legal field, I found jobs were more plentiful and I quickly snagged an excellent, non-legal job. It’s nice to see someone appreciate the skill set I have, when the legal field did not.

  3. One more thing: kudos to Mr. Leichter to realize something that few have picked up on in discussions about reducing the cost of law school. How disappointing to see the focus on cutting cost focus on cutting the last year of law school. By focusing on cutting the last year of law school, everyone is conceding that there is no way to reduce how we have been operating law schools – that costs will continue to soar and the only way to keep them reasonable is to cut off the last year.

    This ‘solution’ in no way addresses the issue: why are costs soaring? If we don’t address the issue, then Mr. Leichter is correct: once the third year is lopped off and costs continue to soar because the true issue wasn’t addressed and changed, then it will be only a short matter of time before the cost for the two years rises and pretty soon becomes just as expensive as the previous three year-model.

    We need to be addressing the true issues: there is no justification for the exhorbitant risting cost of law school. Why has it been allowed?

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