It’s 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 allowing 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.”
The 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 the answer may be: less than some people think. That alone doesn’t make it a bad idea, but it could produce unintended consequences, too.
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, it’s $75,000. Lopping off one-third would help, but it would still leave graduates with significant five-figure burdens.
Unfortunately, the current discussion isn’t about eliminating the third year altogether and awarding JD degrees after two years, although it should be. ABA accreditation requirements block that definitive innovation. So do most law schools because many of them couldn’t survive the resulting loss of third-year tuition revenues.
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? Only if the value of the degree itself was worth less than the cost of a third year to get it.
Improving the third year
Finally, even assuming that many students availed 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 couldn’t schools do that now? 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 they’re 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. That’s because they’re 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, where Dean Rodriguez identifies his school’s “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 doesn’t mention that rushing through in two calendar years (thanks to summer classes and course overloads) won’t save students a penny on their total tuition expense. It’s two years for the price of three because, the school’s 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 JD program and its pricing model from his predecessor, David Van Zandt. Among the program’s stated — and more dubious — goals has been to attract students who otherwise might not have gone to law school at all. Just what the profession has needed, right?
Taking chances with other people’s 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 became popular, lowering the price of a legal education by one-third should increase demand, although the profession doesn’t need that, either.
What’s the correct approach to all of these unknown possibilities? According to the NLJ, Verizon’s general counsel Randall Milch urged throwing caution to the wind: “Analysis paralysis is our worst enemy here. If we are going to overanalyze, we’re never going to figure this out. In my opinion, we have to move and see what happens.”
There’s nothing quite like observing a real-life experiment on someone else.
One concern I have (and I see it also in such proposals as more clinical-type education, for example) is how someone who want to be a corporate/securities/tax lawyer fits in. The bulk of legal work may be litigation, but not everyone who goes to law school wants to be a litigator. The third year is when I got to take the more advanced business, tax and securities courses. But possibly what was right for my school and the markets it supplies with lawyers is not right for other schools.