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Monday, January 14, 2013

New York to Consider Making Third Year of Law School Optional

New York Law Journal:  FDR Did Fine Without a 3L Year: New York May Let Law Students Once Again Take the Bar Exam After Two Years:

The third year of law school has long been a punching bag for critics who argue it's a waste of time and drives up the costs of a law degree, but there have been few serious attempts to do anything about it. Until now.

Legal educators and top New York state court officials will gather on January 18 to discuss whether to allow candidates to sit for the New York state bar examination after just two years in law school. The idea was floated by Samuel Estreicher, a professor at New York University School of Law, who believes skyrocketing law school tuition and diminishing job prospects for new lawyers have created a climate favorable to reform. ...

Estreicher laid out his proposal in an article, The Roosevelt-Cardozo Way: The Case for Bar Eligibility After Two Years of Law School, in the New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. (The title refers to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, both of whom obtained their law degrees when two years was the norm.) He described two benefits to the two-year option, not least that the cost of becoming a lawyer would be reduced by one-third and that, with lower student loan debt, graduates would be in a better position to take lower-paying jobs representing low-income clients. Second, an optional 3L year would give schools incentives to create third-year curricula of more use to students, he wrote; if students saw no real benefit to the 3L curriculum, they would sit for the bar exam instead. ...

Patricia Salkin, dean of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, fears the two-year option wouldn't satisfy legal employers' demands for practice-ready attorneys. "If students spend the first and second years taking core courses, when are they going to develop the practical skills that firms say they want?" she said. "And for the students, will the firms hire someone with only two years of law school, even if they pass the bar?"

The answer to that question, at least for the law firms, judges and federal agencies that tend to hire a large chunk of NYU graduates, is likely no, said dean Richard Revesz. He predicted that few NYU students would be interested in the two-year option. "I'm not a fan of the proposal," he said. "I think it would not be beneficial, but I'm interested in hearing a lot of viewpoints." Revesz said he is skeptical that a two-year option would be an added incentive for schools to revamp curriculum, given that many — including NYU — have already changed their 3L curricula or are weighing such reforms.

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This would seem to vastly increase the supply of lawyers. That is, more people applying to law school because it is only a two year time and financial commitment. Schools will now find their student body decreased by 33%, so they will have capacity to accept larger classes. If the problem is -- we need more lawyers and we need them faster -- this is the solution.

Posted by: Hingis | Jan 14, 2013 4:33:08 PM

Reducing law school from 3 to 2 years does not address the underlying issue: why is tuition rising exponently and why aren't legal educators addressing this issue? If you fail to address the factors that are causing tuition to rise, then tuition will continue to rise and in the very short future (say 5 years), people will be paying just as much for two years of law school that they pay for three today, because the issue of stopping tuition rises was not addressed.

So, the student will be getting even less for his or her money than what they get today. Before we can fix the problem, we must know what it is and why it is caused. Any solutions proposed should address the underlying factors causing the problem. Not doing this only guarantees that we will be seeing this problem down the road again shortly.

Posted by: M. M. | Jan 14, 2013 5:05:30 PM

The two-year option would work if the J.D. degree were a true doctorate or masters degree and the four years of undergraduate study prepared students for law school. How much of the law school experience is remedial (e.g., teaching students time value of money, what annuities are, history, accounting principles, sociology principles, etc.)? FDR went to law school before the proliferation of alphabet agencies, tens of thousands of pages of statutes and hundreds of thousands of pages of administrative materials in an ever-increasing number of areas of legal practice. What's next? Become a Lawyer in One Weekend? Become a Neuro-surgeon During Spring Break? Law school tuition could be reduced if faculty invested more time teaching and less time writing "for other scholars."

Posted by: Jim Maule | Jan 14, 2013 5:17:08 PM

All of these points seem valid to me. I find Prof. Maule's especially important. Not only was the law less complex during the time of FDR and Cardozo, but undergraduate education was much more standardized and, dare we say it, vigorous. An undergraduate liberal arts degree meant that the holder had at least engaged subjects that form the undergirding of Western Civilization. Not so today. A graduate of Berkely or Yale with a B.A. (ah, make that an A.B.) in women's studies or alchemy or witchcraft is not sufficiently vetted to encounter the common law.

Posted by: Publius Novus | Jan 15, 2013 7:37:10 AM

Franklin Roosevelt may not present the best case for arguing for the adequacy of a two year curriculum. He was not an especially skilled lawyer and - according at least to Ted Morgan's,"FDR, a Biography" - as a law student Roosevelt "flunked two course, Contracts and Pleading." Of course, he also famously and spectacularly lost a political/legal duel over his Court packing plan with with the more legally skilled Chief Justice and former law professor, Charles Evans Hughes. And it is a lucky thing for rule of law reasons that he did lose this battle.

Posted by: Joseph W. Mooney | Jan 15, 2013 8:18:14 AM

FDR doesn't make a good case for an abbreviated law school curriculum. He wasn't successful as a lawyer and - at least according to Ted Morgan's, "FDR, a Biography" - as a law student he "flunked Contracts and Pleading." He also famously, and luckily for the rule of law, lost his legal/political duel over his Court Packing Plan with Chief Justice and former law professor, Charles Evans Hughes.

Posted by: Joseph W. Mooney | Jan 15, 2013 9:11:51 AM

The notion that anyone, and I mean anyone, who has just graduated law school -- after two years or three -- could immediately step into the practice of law is, in a word, nonsensical. I have been practicing law for over 26 years but well remember that the first thing I learned when I started was that I knew nothing about how to practice. No law school course -- even those so-called clinical courses -- ever prepares anyone for dealing with non-legal staffers in an office or, more importantly, with court clerks. This is a skill that can only be developed by being in the real world, being educated by the court clerk how to correctly do whatever you are trying to do, and being educated in the same way by your supervisors.

This being said, I tend to agree that two years of legal education is more than enough and frankly, I have never understood why a college junior should not be able to choose law as a major and qualify for the bar examination by taking two years of law courses as an undergraduate.

With all due respect to Deans Salkin and Reverz (and I mean the "with all due respect" in the time honored way), the idea that students gain anything in their third year that adds to their ability to practice law is laughable. To my mind, law school teaches you two things: how to think like a lawyer and how to budget your time. If you haven't got that after two years, a third year ain't helping.

I would not take anything a law school dean says on the subject with any seriousness, by the way. Law school deans are the people best exemplified by Mel Brooks' comment to his colleagues when he portrayed Governor Lepetomaine in Blazing Saddles -- "Gentlemen, we have to protect our phony baloney jobs!"

Posted by: mkbar | Jan 15, 2013 12:34:21 PM

FDR may have been a crummy lawyer, but Abraham Lincoln was a very fine lawyer. He didn't go to college at all.

My Grandfather and my Father went to law school as undergraduates. My Grandfather before WWI, and my Father after WWII. Both earned LLB degrees after four years of undergraduate work. Both of them practiced for many years, and were widely respected in the local bar.

You don't need 7 years of higher education to be a good lawyer. Replacing the 7 year system would save young lawyers 3 years of tuition, and give them 3 years of earnings 3 years sooner.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Jan 15, 2013 1:41:12 PM

I graduated in 2 1/2 years, and my last semester I barely showed up because I was working at a law firm. I would have passed the bar the same and done the same work over the last 6 years if I didn't have the one semester of year 3. The third year is an unfunny joke. One other thing: don't worry, if New York allows students to go only two years, the law schools will make up the difference in tuition hikes. You better believe it.

Posted by: Brian G. | Jan 15, 2013 2:23:47 PM

"If students spend the first and second years taking core courses, when are they going to develop the practical skills that firms say they want?"

Same place as they do now, after they graduate and begin work. They sure as hell aren't going to learn it from academics.

Posted by: Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat | Jan 15, 2013 4:05:40 PM

If you want to be a commodity permanent document reviewer, or your plan is to work 20 hours per day when everyone else is only working 16, a third year of law school isn't necessary.

If you want to do anything high-margin, where you're knowledge and skill and intellect matter more than your ability to function without sleep, you need to specialize in a technical area of law -- i.e., tax, patents, commercial law, bankruptcy, healthcare, energy law, etc. 3 years of law school is barely enough, which is why there are LLM programs.

It's analogous to the difference between being a primary care physician (making little bucks) and doing a fellowship to become a specialist (making the big bucks).

Posted by: Anon | Jan 15, 2013 6:05:27 PM