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Is two years really enough for law school?
President Obama thinks so
 
‪That third year might be better spent clerking or practicing for a firm.‬
‪That third year might be better spent clerking or practicing for a firm.‬ Courtesy Shutterstock

There's an old saying about law school: It scares you to death in the first year, works you to death in the second year, and bores you to death in the third.

So why not just lop off the third year? It's an idea that law school professors and administrators have been mulling lately, because rising student debt and a shrinking job market have made a career in law less appealing. And last week, during a town hall at Binghamton University to discuss tuition reform, President Obama weighed in.

"This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck? I'm in my second term, so I can say it," said Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate. "I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years."

"In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom," he added. "The third year, they'd be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren't getting paid that much."

The American Bar Association requires that students graduate with at least 83 credits earned over no less than 24 months, usually spread out over three years. For most programs, this means two years spent on basics, like contracts, property, and antitrust law, and a third on more specialized electives.

The cost of such a program is crushing, particularly since a degree no longer automatically guarantees graduates a job. The average graduate in 2012 entered the field with $108,293 in debt, and nine months after graduation, just 56 percent of that class had found stable jobs. The result of this trend is plummeting enrollment.

How would making law school shorter and cheaper help? At first glance, it seems like the move would mean more competition for fewer jobs.

But it's not quite that simple. Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed says the change might push new lawyers to create their own jobs:

One possible outcome of restructuring law schools, [Samuel Estreicher, professor at New York University Law School,] argues, is that they would take a more practical, less academic bent that would better-prepare law students to begin practicing on their own upon graduation — something that's more and more common, given businesses' increased reliance on contract-based, rather than full-time, legal work that began during the recession and has persisted. [Inside Higher Ed]

It could also encourage new lawyers to start careers that focus on lower-income sectors of the population, which are now underserved by the legal community. "As it is now, many young lawyers say they would love to follow this path but cannot afford to because of their onerous debts," said Estreicher and Daniel B. Rodriguez in The New York Times.

But there are concerns that those graduates will not be fully equipped to serve those clients.

For much of the 19th century, two years was the standard for law school. But as Martha C. Nussbaum and Charles Wolf explain in Bloomberg, in 1902, a political science professor at the University of Chicago named Ernst Freund changed all that. He believed lawyers should "go out into a society where all is not well, and they had better be equipped to think broadly, critically and independently about it."

This philosophy caught on, reflected largely in the elective classes law students take in their second and third years. Nussbaum and Wolf explain:

Denigration of the third year is caused not only by economic panic, but also by a forgetfulness of Freund's idea of a legal practice deepened, enriched and made independent of social control by the scientific study of society, or as [University of Chicago President William Rainey] Harper said, "the whole field of man as a social being."

The general idea of the Freund model is that lawyers are influential members of a complicated and often troubled society. They need all the help they can get if they are to have enough understanding of social forces to operate effectively, rather than just deferentially or by rote. [Bloomberg]

Stephen Diamond, a law professor, told Jennifer Smith at The Wall Street Journal that a two-year program "would sharply reduce students' ability to take courses in specialized areas, such as intellectual property, and to enroll in clinical courses or internships that teach real-world skills."

So the question seems to be: Is what is gained by chopping off year three worth what is lost?

It's a pickle.

"Maybe we can't afford three years of legal education anymore," Barry Currier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation and legal education, told The Wall Street Journal. "But there are a lot of ways to reduce cost, and just slicing off a whole year is a blunt instrument."

 
Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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