Two-Year Law School Makes Perfect Sense
A two-year program could address law school's debt and training problems
September 30, 2013
Evaluating whether to deliver legal education in two years invokes several criticisms of modern law schools. Notably, that costs are exorbitant and the training is inadequate. A sensibly crafted two-year degree addresses both.
Adjusted for inflation, tuition for public law schools is 5.3 times higher today than in 1985. Private schools are 2.5 times as expensive. Today’s graduate must compete against two peers for every one lawyer job, in tandem with law school loan obligations averaging well over $100,000. Society cannot continue to expect students to mortgage their 20s, 30s and 40s; nor can it afford to do this. The economic and social consequences go beyond individual borrowers.
Despite the hefty price tag, key voices in the legal profession grumble that law schools do not prepare graduates for practice. Calls for more practical training are not new, but have been invigorated by a groundswell of criticisms about unconscionable debt, unethical marketing tactics and irresponsible growth (enrollment and personnel). Certainly, educational improvement is an enduring goal in a mutable world; content and pedagogy must evolve with a changing profession. Yet, as of today, costs are far more pressing. That’s what makes the two-year degree so attractive.
To be sure, the term "two-year degree" is imprecise. Some schools already permit students to cram three years of credits (and tuition) into two years, saving them a year of living expenses and opportunity costs. Under current accreditation rules, students must complete 58,000 minutes of instruction in no fewer than 24 months.
Proposals like President Obama’s, which reduce instruction time to save money, require rule changes to adjust what two-year degrees can mean. Any reform must also serve both students and the public well. As Obama says, this requires creativity.
Unlike other professional programs, law schools do not currently utilize curricular prerequisites prior to enrollment. One part of the reform package could be American Bar Association-mandated prerequisites to assure various competencies. Basic economics, accounting, statistics, persuasion and U.S. government courses would deepen the value of the law school curriculum, while also helping schools reduce costs.
In addition to outlining required college courses, the ABA could accredit prerequisite modules that other organizations might offer, perhaps online for free. Quality assurance is essential, but the chance that a student wants to pursue a law degree later need not cannibalize her undergraduate education now.
Technology can make a substantial dent in costs and improve training before a student ever enrolls in law school. A school may move some content – say, basic black letter law – to an online platform, leaving the more expensive live classroom instruction for the types of training best accomplished in person. A state licensing body may eliminate perceived gaps in new attorneys by adding supplementary coursework to standard continuing education programs to make up for the one fewer year of law school.
Each part of the above reform package rejects thinking that the core legal education must start and end with law school. Creative thinking about two-year law degrees means moving beyond the bounds of traditional education. To get there, however, law school operations need significant structural and attitudinal shifts. The two-year model is theoretically worthy, but requires significant innovation to produce a suitable reality.