The call for shortening law school to two years has gained some momentum recently, following President Obama's cursory endorsement of this idea in a town hall forum. In his comments, the president linked this idea with the predicament of student debt load and proposed cutting law school down by one third in order to save students' that amount of tuition. The debt problem is real one, but the two-year proposal is misguided.
The structure of legal education is built around five basic objectives: first, to provide a cogent body of foundational knowledge about the central legal subjects upon which much of the architecture of legal practice is built; second, to introduce law students to the institutions and processes which create, implement, and reform law in modern American society; third, to inculcate the values and techniques that shape lawyers' strategies and judgment – what is often called "learning to think like a lawyer"; fourth, to expand the base of information and knowledge by exposure to specialized areas of law; and, finally, to provide for opportunities to get practical experience and applied training through live-client work and externships.
These are important objectives, important to the students' professional training certainly, but centrally important as well to the legal profession and to society which rightly expects young lawyers to hit the ground running, to be "practice ready."
Cutting law school down by a third risks undermining the last three of these objectives; it supposes that the complex work of shaping lawyers' training can be compacted into just two semesters after the foundation is laid in the first year – or, even worse, it supposes that eager law students can be converted into practice-ready professionals without the cluster of skills and experience that advanced work in law schools can provide. Particularly alarming is the prospect that law students would be able to go forth and practice law without any serious practical training in the law school setting.
President Obama suggests that law school training can be supplanted by post-graduate internships at law firms or clerkships with state or federal judges. To be sure, these are worthwhile sources of experience and training. But what law schools provide is what catch-as-catch-can experiences after graduation cannot reliably provide, and that is a structured, deliberate curriculum, led by talented law professors (including seasoned lawyers from private practice), and embedded in a coherent academic program.
Do all law schools succeed in this venture? Are they all equally committed to this ambitious goal of training law students to become exemplary lawyers and ethical professionals? Sadly no. Yet, the proposal to address deficiencies in contemporary legal education by slashing legal education and thereby omitting the opportunity for students to develop these core competencies is simply throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
I speak with lawyers daily and listen to lawyers' candid critiques of our current system of legal education. What I never hear is this: Beginning lawyers are over-educated and over-trained. Nor do I hear that clients are eminently comfortable with first-year lawyers' knowledge, experience, and sophistication. Indeed, I hear very much the opposite, that is, that law schools need to develop a richer, more practically focused scheme of legal education – that is, we need to do more, not less.
The two-year solution is no solution at all. Yes, we need to address the problem of student debt; we need to get law school costs under control; and we need to redouble our efforts to provide legal training that responds to the demands of the contemporary legal profession. In doing so, we need a scalpel, not a blunderbuss; we need creative strategies, not radical surgery.
About Daniel Rodriguez Dean of Northwestern School of Law
Edwin S. Fruehwald Former Law Professor