President Obama not only waded into the college rankings debate recently, but he also opined on whether law schools should rethink the amount of time aspiring lawyers spend in the classroom. “This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it,” Obama, a former constitutional law professor, said. “I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.” He continued: “Now, the question is, ‘Can law schools maintain quality and keep good professors and sustain themselves without that third year?’ My suspicion is, is that if they thought creatively about it, they probably could.”
Whether law schools move from three years to two is a hot topic within the law community. Last year, Samuel Estreicher, a professor at New York University Law School, released a paper calling for law students to be eligible to take the bar exam after two years of school; he says such a change could force law schools to cut costs and make the third year of instruction more useful. According to one estimate, the average 2013 law graduate will have $140,000 in debt.
But others in the law community are skeptical that such an approach could work. "If we're not producing good results in three years — and many of the critics say we are not—how are we going to do it in two years?" asked Houston Law Center professor Michael A. Olivas. Santa Clara University School of Law professor Stephen Diamond added, "You'd basically have to cram the first and second year with bar courses."
Also, two-year degrees might not bring about the hoped-for savings on tuition. As law professor Matt Bodie writes, “It may seem obdurate to suggest that lopping off a third of the legal education provided to students would not reduce the tuition they pay. But it won't – at least, not on its own. Yes, it will cut the costs of providing that education, at least in theory. But it won't lower tuition.”
So should law school be two years instead of three? Here is the Debate Club’s take:
Edwin S. Fruehwald Former Law Professor
Daniel Rodriguez Dean of Northwestern School of Law