Paul L. Caron

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rodriguez & Estreicher: Make Law Schools Earn a Third Year

New York Times op-ed:  Make Law Schools Earn a Third Year, by Daniel B. Rodriguez (Dean, Northwestern) & Samuel Estreicher (NYU):

Today, leaders of the New York bar, judges and law school faculty members will gather at New York University to discuss a proposed rule change. If adopted by the state’s highest court, it could make law school far more accessible to low-income students, help the next generation of law students avoid a heavy burden of debt and lead to improvements in legal education across the United States.

The proposal would amend the rules of the New York State Court of Appeals to allow students to take the state bar exam after two years of law school instead of the three now required. Law schools would no doubt continue to provide a third year of legal instruction — and most should (more on that in a bit) — but students would have the option to forgo that third year, save the high cost of tuition and, ideally, find a job right away that puts their legal training to work. ...

With this reform, law schools would have an obvious financial incentive to design creative curriculums that law students would want to pursue — a third-year program of advanced training that would allow those who wished it to become more effective litigators, specialize or better prepare for the real-world legal challenges that lie ahead.

We are confident that many law schools will be able to meet that challenge.

In fact, that evolution is already going on, as many schools (including our own) reimagine their third-year curriculums through externships, public service programs and courses that offer in-depth practical training.If this trend continues — and the two-year option would only encourage it — those who graduate from rigorous three-year programs will not only emerge with sharper legal skills, but also be more essential to employers, raising the rate of job placement out of law school....

Update #1:  National Law Journal, Law School Two-Year Option Intrigues New York's Top Judge:

A proposal to allow students to take the New York Bar Exam after two years of law school has piqued the interest of the state's top judge.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman stopped short of formally endorsing the idea when it was taken out for a public airing on January 18 at New York University School of Law. But he told the more than 100 gathered legal educators, practitioners and judges that the concept deserves serious study.

Update # 2:  Matt Leichter, NYT Op-Ed Provides Mostly Irrelevant, Unsubstantiated Reasons for Two-Year Legal Education:

Rodriguez and Estreicher mean well when praising New York’s discussion about reducing its legal education requirement from three years to two. Unlike others who’ve written op-eds for the Grey Lady in the past, I believe they are working in good faith, and make no mistake I’m fine with reducing the number of credits people need for law school. …But I’m not fine with doing it for irrelevant or incorrect reasons because it doesn’t solve the underlying problems.

(Hat Tip: Mike Talbert.)

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Although I don't necessarily come to the same conclusions as Linus, I enjoyed his reasoning.

Like Linus, I think the two year program may result in turning out more grads (if the demand is there) and result in higher tuition. The real savings come from opportunity cost. Would this make law school a financial winner? I'm not so sure about that.

Posted by: HTA | Jan 21, 2013 7:56:23 PM

I think cutting it two years is very logical and will have far-reaching positive effects on the profession. The true cost of law school is dramatically higher than tuition & fees. The biggest number is lost earnings. Yes, even in today's brutal job environment, the year of lost earnings (averaged out to include the unemployed) is still higher than a year of tuition & fees. Not to mention the year of lost work experience and skill development.

Furthermore, the year of lost income you lose is arguably your LAST year in the workforce. So it's a pretty big number.

One objection is that the schools will lose money if law school is only two years. Aside from the fact that we probably shouldn't care about that, its also probably not true. The overall economic proposition of attending law school is so much better after you save a year of lost income, that I could easily see schools recouping the difference through (i) higher per-year tuition (ii) lower costs from having only 2/3 of the current student body and (iii) increased demand for a degree due to the better economics of it.

Lastly, I hear people saying things like "the job market is so bad now, the last thing we need is more grads". This is getting the math wrong. Cutting off a year doesn't change the number of students graduating every year. They just graduate a year younger and with less debt, especially on an age-adjusted basis (i.e., a 25-year old graduate will have less debt and more savings at 26 than if he had just graduated at 26).

Posted by: Linus | Jan 20, 2013 11:17:13 AM

Although I do think getting to two years is a worthwhile reform goal, I think this may be too little, too early.

The first problems we need to be dealing with are (i) too many students, and (ii) too much debt. Reducing law school to two-years might actually make the first problem worse, and without some kind of financial aid reform there is no guarantee that schools won't just continue jacking tuition to the point that in a few years people are paying the same for two years as it now costs for three.

Posted by: john | Jan 19, 2013 2:22:31 PM

I'm confused. There are a dearth of law jobs already. What do these distinguished Dean's think those 2L grads will do but be unemployed for an extra year?

We have too many law graduates already. The only solution is less law students, not early graduates. Of course, the 2L grad solution doesn't threat either author's job.

Posted by: Richard P | Jan 18, 2013 8:08:39 PM