19 February 2013

Should Law School be Shortened?

Both private and public law schools have been inexorably raising their tuition and costs over the years. In 2012, total costs for private law schools averaged about $40,000 compared to $23,000 in 2001. For public law schools, the same period has seen an increase to $23,600 from $8,500. These soaring costs have taken place during a two decade long contraction in the market for lawyers.

If employed, over half of recent law graduates are working in low paying jobs, unrelated to the legal profession. Since 90% of law students must finance tuition through loans, the lack of a successful career can be disastrous. Coincidentally, in 2012, only 30,000 graduates applied to law schools - 20 percent less than 2011 and 38 percent less than 2010. BS/BA graduates looking for postgraduate degrees and professions have seen the statistics.

In fact, the viability of the present legal educational system has come into question. These discussions have been directed at both the costs and the relevancy of the skills taught and the needs of the marketplace. A Juris Doctor (JD) degree and the right to sit for the bar exam requires seven years: four-years of college and three years - six semesters - of instruction at an American Bar Association (ABA) approved law school.

Until 2004, the ABA had rather detailed outlines for subject and even minutes of instruction over the three years – L1, L2 and L3. However, for 1L, most law schools follow a similar required curriculum that includes basic courses as an overview of the broad study of law. After the first year, 2L students pursue specific fields of study: administrative law, admiralty law, corporate law, intellectual property law, international law, tax law and others. An independent study project that requires a paper for credit is included in 2L or 3L.

Programs of less than three-years have been proposed to allow graduates an extra year to work and lower costs. Since 2004, a few law schools have introduced degree programs that shorten the three-year requirement. These accelerated plans are classified either as "3+3 JD programs" or as "2-year JD programs.” In a 3+3 JD program, after a period of six years, students are awarded both BA/BS and JD degrees following program completion.

About 20 law schools presently offer the six-year option; however, programs are often limited to certain areas of specialization. Columbia Law School in NYC offers a BA/JD degree through its accelerated interdisciplinary education (AILE) program offered in collaboration with various universities around the U.S. This six-year program can save costs and provides faster access to the job market.

Even fewer law schools offer 2-year JD programs. A program at Northwestern University School of Law in Illinois begins in the summer term and then follows a normal two-year program. Enrollment requires two years of employment experience. Although the degree is completed one year earlier, the total course work remains unchanged as does the cost relative to their 3-year program.

Offering both a decrease in overall tuition costs and an additional year for employment, the 3+3 program would appear the best deal. However, it means a commitment to the legal profession and possibly a specialization in the first year of college. The 2-year JD plan provides only the year of extra employment and no cost savings.

A proposed alternative, not yet available, would have both advantages with no restrictions. This program would involve four semesters, 2 years, of formal law school followed by a one year “apprenticeship” before awarding of a degree and admittance to the bar exam. Presumably, graduates would learn more in their last year by working in the legal services sector.

Jonathan Strawberry is a freelancer who concentrates on law, politics, education, professional training, employment trends and other relevant issues. Law is definitely an honorable profession; view an attorney who understands and wishes to preserve this fact.