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Two Years to What?
The Am Law Daily
Its no panacea. It may not even be a good idea. But in a recent New York Times op-ed, Northwestern Law School dean Daniel B. Rodriguez and NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher endorsed a proposal that would allow students to sit for the New York bar exam after only two years of law school:
[I]t could make law school far more accessible to low-income students, help the next generation of law students avoid a heavy burden of debt, and lead to improvements in legal education across the United States.
Recently, New York state's top judge told a gathering of legal educators, practitioners, and judges that the concept deserves serious study, according to The National Law Journal.
Sorting out the facts
If the New York proposal is adopted, what aspects of legal education might change? No one really knows, but it might change less than some people think.
Unfortunately, the current discussion isnt about eliminating the third year altogether and awarding J.D. degrees after two years, although it should be. ABA accreditation requirements block that definitive innovation. So do most law schools because many of them couldnt survive the resulting loss of third-year tuition revenues. That alone doesnt make the New York proposal a bad idea, but it could produce some unintended consequences.
Under the plan, most students who leave law school after two years will still have staggering debt. The average private law school graduate incurs $125,000 in loans; for public schools, its $75,000. Lopping off one-third would help, but it would still leave graduates with significant five-figure burdens.
But would such debt without a degree be an attractive option? Would a student who has already sunk $100,000 into two years of legal education decide that passing the bar alone was sufficient reward for that investment? Perhaps. But only if the value of the degree itself was worth less than the cost of paying for a third year of law school.
Improving the third year
Finally, even assuming that many students avail themselves of the two-year option, how would most deans respond? In their op-ed, Rodriguez and Estreicher suggest that schools might improve third-year curriculum so that students would stay. But couldnt schools do that now? Unfortunately, only a handful do.
Perhaps inadvertently, Rodriguez and Estreicher implicitly make the real point: only the threat of losing significant third-year tuition revenues will dramatically change most deans behavior. Deans may say that theyre in the business of trying to get students through law school economically, but when they have opportunities to act accordingly, few seem to make the effort. Thats because theyre actually in the business of maximizing their schools short-term metrics, including revenues and U.S. News rankings.
The decades-long explosion in tuition costs is one example. Another one appears in the Times op-ed, when dean Rodriguez identifies his schools accelerated program that lets students pursue a three-year course of study in two years, allowing them to take the bar and enter the job market a year earlier.
Rodriguez doesnt mention that rushing through in two calendar years (thanks to summer classes and course overloads) wont save students a penny on their total tuition expense. Its two years for the price of three because, as the schools website observes, The Law School prices tuitions based on the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.
In fairness to dean Rodriquez, he inherited the accelerated J.D. program and its pricing model from his predecessor, David Van Zandt. Among the programs statedand more dubiousgoals has been to attract students who otherwise might not have gone to law school at all. Just what the profession needs, right?
Taking chances with other peoples lives
Given their business models, many law schools seem likely to counteract any loss of third-year tuition revenues with larger entering classes. After all, that adjustment requires less work than improving curriculum, and total applicants overall still exceed the number of available spaces. Moreover, if the two-year option becomes popular, lowering the price of a legal education by one-third should increase demand, although the profession really doesnt need that, either.
Whats the correct approach to all of these unknown possibilities? According to the NLJ, Verizons general counsel Randall Milch urges throwing caution to the wind: Analysis paralysis is our worst enemy here. If we are going to overanalyze, were never going to figure this out. In my opinion, we have to move and see what happens.
Theres nothing quite like observing a real-life experiment via someone else.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of the forthcoming book, THE LAWYER BUBBLE A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2, 2013). He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/ . A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.