The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday discussing the ongoing debate whether the traditional course of study for a law degree, which is a prerequisite in most states for admission to practice, should be reduced from three years to just two. Even President Obama, who is both the product of a traditional three-year Juris Doctor program and a former legal educator, weighed in somewhat in favor of a change. The biggest factor spurring this debate seems to be the skyrocketing costs of law school.
I approach this question with the following background. I graduated from a high second-tier law school in 1993. I paid my own way through law school, amassing about $80,000 in loans. I had accepted an offer at an insurance defense firm where I had been clerking for 2 years; my starting salary was $52,000. It took me about 11 (painful) years to pay off my student loans. I give this background to make clear that I don’t come at this issue from the perspective of the academic elite, nor did I finish school without a job.
My experience working for various small firms, mid-sized litigation firms, and now at an AmLaw 150 firm tells me that reducing the amount of training, whether it is Socratic classroom lectures or on-the-job clinical training, will not serve anyone’s interests. Beyond reducing the cost/debt of law school, it will not benefit newly-minted lawyers, who would spring from the costly but generally encouraging womb of law school with even less to offer than at present. It will not benefit most law firms that (unlike my own) do not or cannot afford to invest in providing their lawyers with systematic, ongoing training on how to write, argue, advocate at trial or negotiate. Most importantly, it will not benefit clients who find themselves saddled with a new lawyer that was not sufficiently trained before being ejected from the nest.
The rising cost of law school, and resulting debt for students who may or may not be able to secure a job that exploits their training and compensates them accordingly is a real problem. It’s a terrible problem. But I do not believe that the solution lies in grinding future lawyers harder during their first two years, then turning them loose to commit malpractice at the expense of unsuspecting clients any sooner.
I have written here and here that law schools should increase the amount of real-world experience students receive before they graduate. If this can be done in a way that reduces the expense of the third year of school, then it would be a win-win. Even after I secured my first paying job as a law clerk, I still did some pro bono work in a law clerk capacity, both because it made me feel good and I gained experience I could include on my resume. Providing there is adequate supervision, many third year students could earn credits performing similar activities, which should both reduce their education tab and boost access to justice for the underserved.
BigLaw firms like my own have increasingly become involved in pro bono initiatives in which they “partner” with client legal staffs to tackle larger pro bono opportunities. This is clearly a win-win for the law firm, which gets to show off its lawyers’ skills, and for the beneficiaries of the pro bono projects, who enjoy enthusiastic, top drawer legal talent. Perhaps such “partnering” could be expanded to include third year law students, creating a win-win-win, as students get to interface with law firm leaders while showing off their enthusiasm and talent. Just a thought.
I applaud educators and others in the profession for trying to improve the situation for folks who want to practice law, a goal which should be pursued with boundless verve. On the other hand, snipping off that third year with no better substitute would be a regrettable choice.