In the early 1970s, there was a robust debate in legal circles about whether to do away with the third year of law school. Two prestigious commissions came to the same conclusion: The third year was largely a waste of time. The traditionalists beat that movement back, but the federal judge Richard Posner has in recent years also called the third year superfluous. And, indeed, at least one survey found that law students are so disengaged by their final year that they skip about half their classes.
All of which makes it surprising that Northwestern University's recent decision to offer a two-year degree track has generated so much controversy. Northwestern students who elect to go the two-year route will take as many credits as their three-year counterparts, but in compressed form. Their first year will begin at the start of the summer, not the fall, and they'll take more credits during the traditional academic year.
The new track is designed for applicants with work experience, Northwestern says, especially those who grasp the value of getting back into the labor market a year early. Yet there will be some curricular differences, too, which were supposedly suggested by managing partners at top law firms: More instruction in business strategy and in teamwork, for example.
There's surely some competitive thinking going on here on the part of NU administrators: Northwestern has long trailed cross-town rival the University of Chicago by just a bit in prestige and recruiting power, and the move could give them a leg up among some applicants.
Tuition hasn't been set, but the school hints that it will not charge any less for the two-year degree than the three-year degree: The financial benefit will come purely from getting back on salary quicker (and perhaps from additional market value the new courses provide). That the two-year degree wouldn't cost less led the University of Chicago's Geoffrey Stone to quip to Time: "Northwestern gets more tuition with less teaching."
Meanwhile, legal blogger Brian Leiter -- who coincidentally just moved from the University of Texas to the University of Chicago -- suggested that elite law firms were smart enough to realize that "B-school gimmickry" was no substitute for analytic smarts. Northwestern's curriculum might scare off precisely the students who law firms know make the best lawyers in the long run.
But on the blog Empirical Legal Studies, William Henderson, of Indiana University's law school, said the negative reactions were evidence of an academic herd mentality: "The more we criticize [the Northwestern plan]," he wrote, "the more we show how out of touch we are with market forces."
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