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editorial

Three-year law school deserves second look amid upheaval

A massive market failure. That’s what University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos likes to call the current price structure for legal education, and it’s hard to disagree: Elite law programs now charge upwards of $50,000 per year, a price that’s doubled over the past two decades. Law students enrolling this fall will graduate with an average of $200,000 in debt, heading into an employment market with scarcely more than one job for every two newly minted lawyers. Amid this economic collapse, the legal profession should welcome creative solutions, big or small.

President Obama offered his own off-the-cuff fix recently when, in speaking about college affordability, he challenged the current convention of the three-year law school. Obama proposed shortening it to two years; the traditional third year of classroom learning would be better used, he suggested, if aspiring lawyers gained practical experience through, for example, a low-paying legal apprenticeship or judicial clerkship.

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The cost-cutting advantages of a two-year law school are clear: Students would pay one-third less tuition. For a young lawyer heading into criminal practice or a district attorney’s office, the difference would be significant. Even for those working in large firms, where clients have grown reluctant to pay stiff rates for rookie lawyers, the reduced debt would be helpful. But lopping off a year of academic study would also be a dramatic change. The third year often allows students to delve into specialized areas of the law, and should remain available to those who want to pursue deeper instruction.

Cutting the third year would also have a serious financial impact on law schools and universities as a whole. Law schools are a cash cow for universities, which use up to 30 percent of their revenues to buoy other, less profitable fields. Still, experimenting with different models for legal education makes more sense than simply sticking by the three-year model to preserve the cash flow to universities; different legal specialties require different types of instruction.

Some law schools, including New York University, are already trying versions of the two-year model, and the American Bar Association should try to ease the way. State bar associations can help foster experimentation, too: The New York state bar requires only one year of law school, and Maine’s only two years. Four states accommodate the earlier practice of “reading the law,” meaning applicants to the bar needn’t attend law school at all if they have practical experience to rely on. That’s unlikely to be the ideal training for most future American lawyers, but it was once good enough for Abraham Lincoln.

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