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A two-year law degree?

Posted by Christopher Shea  August 4, 2008 12:27 PM

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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.

Northwestern University

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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11 comments so far...
  1. I believe my 3rd year of law school was valuable; a 3rd year helps students continue to hone their analytical thinking and writing skills. Presumably law firms think this is important; after all they reward students who take off a year for a judicial clerkship, even if that student goes into transactional work.
    I am also leery of the effect a 2-year program (particularly an intensive year-round program such as Northwestern's) on institutions such as law reviews -- will students be expected to join a review on day one, and to manage it (let alone have the skills and experience to manage it) at the start of year two?
    And what of summer internships? In a 2-year program, presumably students would go straight into their permanent job after the 2nd year, not into a summer internship that helps them realize what they want while leaving them with a 3rd year to "correct course". In fact is this the law firms' true motivation - eliminating expensive and archaic summer associate programs?

    Posted by Jeff August 5, 08 09:00 AM
  1. The third year of law school is a complete waste of time and money. A better system would be as follows:

    First Year: traditional 1L theory and fundamentals courses
    Second Year: specialty area courses
    Third Year: full-time clerkship/apprenticeship

    Posted by TJ August 5, 08 10:00 AM
  1. As a law student about to enter my third year, I admit that I question the need for it and I am exhausted physically, mentally and financially already. If I'm going to have the debt either way, I'd rather get the full educational experience for it than squeeze it in so tight that there is no time to absorb and learn from the experience. I appreciate the irreplaceable opportunities that I have had to study abroad one summer, and have internships and work experience this summer, and I am one of few lucky people to participate in a clinic in my upcoming final year of school.
    It is undoubtedly a terrible decision to cram more credit hours into less time. I had 7 courses my first year of law school (6 per semester), which is absurd. Law students are stressed and overwhelmed enough - one has only to read the many reports of depression and anxiety, and the damage it does. A better decision would be to reduce the number of credits required to obtain the degree, instead of padding it with unnecessary courses. Electives are wonderful and provide for an excellent and well-rounded education, but the best ones are offered infrequently and to so few students that it isn't worth it to require three years of school. Clinics and practical experience with supervision are ideal opportunities and perfect for a third year of law school. I think it would be better for schools to focus on increasing those opportunities, instead of reducing the time required without reducing credits or tuition. It sounds to me like Northwestern wants to break their students, not improve things for them.

    Posted by Caroline August 5, 08 10:42 AM
  1. Personally, I don't see what the big deal is whether NU offers a two year law degree. With respects to the comments of Jeff, those logistical issues surrounding a student's legal studies are purely semantics. It almost implies that having 3 years for law learning is a "set in stone" perfect way to conduct legal studies. Am I saying that it should most certainly be two years? Well, I am saying that giving students options shows innovative thinking on the part of NU and their willingness to be flexible with the current social and economic environment of our times. As Professor Herd mentioned aboved, oftentimes debate around these academic issues is purely the ramblings of a "herd mentality" around how it has always been done.

    Posted by Ben August 5, 08 11:01 AM
  1. More lawyers quicker??????? Can't we slow the process down rather than speeding it up?????

    Posted by Bob Trent August 5, 08 12:47 PM
  1. Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles has had a two year program in place since 1975. It is called SCALE which stands for Southwestern's Conceptual Approach To Legal Education. Thought you would like to know. I didn't want Northwestern being given credit for an educational approach that's been in existence for 33 years.

    Posted by Bob Houston August 5, 08 01:29 PM
  1. Third year of law school is a complete waste of time and money. Northwestern's program should be applauded although the fact that it will cost the same as 3 years is laughable. College and law school is, in general, a ripoff. A necessary evil but still a ripoff.

    Posted by Mark August 5, 08 01:40 PM
  1. 3rd year is valuable, but only for people engaged in the intellectual side of law (see Jeff's comments -- e.g., clerkships, law review, independent study). I went to a top-10 school and would say that 60-75% of people there had zero interest in these things. Would probably be better to just release them to start their diligence and document review projects a year early. Hell, I did those intellectual things and still managed to play more golf than I will when I'm retired.

    Will say, however, that it's absurd NWU thinks they can charge the same tuition for one year's less instruction. Just goes to show that you're buying the degree/credential, not necessarily the teaching experience.

    Posted by Pat August 5, 08 02:28 PM
  1. To Bob Houston:
    You are right. Southwestern indeed has long had such a program; the University of Dayton has a much newer one along the same lines. Northwestern's, however, is seen as the first move in this direction by an "elite" law school, FWIW, so it's generating more attention.
    There seem to be scattered cases, too, where other schools let people out early, but those seem to be case-by-case decisions.
    --Chris Shea

    Posted by Chris Shea August 5, 08 03:43 PM
  1. I take offense to the author's comment that Northwestern has "long trailed" UChicago in prestige. In fact, Northwestern's professional schools boast a lot more history and tradition -- and a much nicer downtown location -- than their South Side counterparts. In fact, that UChicago proposed a merger with NU in the 1930s to enhance the reputation of its grad schools. In the latest US News rankings, #7 UChicago scored 80 points overall, and #9 NU scored 79. How UChicago managed to curry favor with the national media at the expense of Northwestern puzzles me every time I see an article like this.

    To those complaining that tuition remains the same despite the shortened term, I would ask you to remember that the students are still receiving the same amount of credit as they would have in a traditional 3-year program at NU. They're taking more classes per week, and giving up a summer. Your undergraduate school charged you more per semester when you took more class hours, did it not? They didn't let you take summer classes for free, did they?

    I really hope this program is seen as it's intended: an option for some ambitious students to receive their degrees more quickly than others. If they're still putting in the hours of work, and taking the same classes, who cares if it's squeezed into two years? Who cares if they're forfeiting a summer of work or leisure? That should be the student's choice alone.

    Personally, I'd love to stay in school as long as possible, so NU's program probably isn't for me. But why not let those who want to get back out into the salary-making world as quickly as possible do so, since by all accounts it's possible? The rest of NU's law students can remain on the 3-year track if they so desire.

    Posted by Adam P August 7, 08 11:06 AM
  1. I have a single daughter that has a child. She is getting her undergrad degree in three years by taking full credit loads, not taking summers off, and by foregoing beer pong, tail gating, etc. activities.

    In her situation, methods to speed up the educational process are very valuable. Time is only a consideration. If a student has the tenacity and desire to put forth the effort necessary to complete law school in two years, why create artificial barriers to slow or stop their progression? Throughout K-12 schools, students learn and advance at different speeds, so why should law school be any different?

    When our firm, http://online-marketing-strategies.net, is hiring, we are very interested in the individual, their IQ, their ability and willingness to produce, and whether or not they have social characteristics. Never in 20 years have we dismissed hiring someone because they went to school for two, three, four or five years.

    Posted by Kurtis Kintzel November 19, 09 06:23 PM
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