Law schools in Connecticut and just outside its borders are among those reporting plummeting law school application numbers, launching yet another discussion about whether it’s time to revamp the way legal training is offered.

Among those ideas: Allowing students to take the bar after two years of law school. If they pass, they could head into the workplace, avoiding the third year’s tuition. A third year would be optional, but only students who complete it would get a J.D. degree.

Lesley Levin, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said the idea could increase the number of people seeking to make a career in the legal profession. "If the cost of law school is lower, it probably would affect applications," Levin said. "Of course, I’m only guessing."

Both UConn and Quinnipiac University School of Law have seen dramatically lower application numbers since 2010. So has Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Mass. At UConn, the largest drop has been in the part-time division, whose applications plummeted from 865 in 2011 to 235 in 2012.

"I think because of the overall job picture, mid-level executives are staying put and deciding not to venture into law school," said Ellen Rutt, UConn’s associate dean for enrollment management. "Our evening division has taken a real blow. It’s puzzling and distressing at the same time."

As of mid-January, 27,891 people had applied for seats in American Bar Association-accredited law schools. The decline represented a 20 percent decline over the same period last year. And the 2012 numbers, in turn, represented a 14 percent decrease from 2011.

Because the application deadline has not yet pased, UConn, Quinnipiac and Western New England declined to release applications statistics for the 2013-14 academic year, citing competitive concerns. They agreed, however, that the numbers are lower than last year’s disappointing totals.

UConn had 2,066 applicants in 2012, down about 25 percent from the year before. Quinnipiac saw a decline of 27 percent, and Western New England 13 percent.

The decrease comes at a time when legal educators are scrambling to find ways to address both the applications decline and the record low employment figures for law school graduates.

"It’s an enormously complicated matter," said Richard S. Kay, a UConn law professor who has pondered the issues of intellectually stimulating legal study and the practical need for hands-on training. "Changing any one part of the system, either the legal profession or the education system, may have unexpected consequences in unexpected places. So any initial reaction [to declining application numbers] has to be tentative."

Kay was aware of the recent proposal to allow students to take the New York Bar Exam after two years of law school. The idea that law schools might draw more applicants by reducing potential educational loan debt has piqued the interest of New York’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 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.

"I don’t think there is anyone on a law school faculty or on the bench who would say, ‘This is crazy,’ " said Lippman. "[This] proposal challenges all of us involved in legal education to, whatever the length of law school, look at how we can do better."

The concept of doing away with the third year of law school, or making it optional, has been around for decades but has never gone much beyond the discussion phase. NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher recently revisited the topic in an article titled, "The Roosevelt-Cardozo Way: The Case for Bar Eligibility After Two Years of Law School," in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. (The title refers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, both of whom studied law at a time when two years was the norm.)

Estreicher argues that making the third year optional would reduce total tuition costs by one third, while giving law schools incentive to experiment with their third-year curricula. If students don’t see value in that final year, they could take the bar exam instead and law schools would surrender the final year of tuition.

"This is not about the fate of the third year; this is about choice," Estreicher said. "Law students shouldn’t have the force of the state saying, ‘You’ve got to complete a third year.’ Let’s not make it a one-size fits all."

Under Estreicher’s proposal, students who take the bar exam after two years would not obtain a J.D., but would be eligible for a bar card. (The ABA’s law school accreditation standards require students to complete at least 83 credits; Estreicher would establish New York bar exam eligibility upon completion of 60 credits.)

UConn’s Levin, who was familiar with the proposal, said offering two-year law school programs might be a useful way to fill the "huge need" of legal services throughout the country among people who can’t afford to pay lawyers.

"If you have a program by which people can become lawyers at a lower cost themselves, then they should be able to charge less for their services," Levin said. At the same time, she said, "students in two-year programs might not get enough training to do [all] the things they need to become lawyers."

UConn professor Kay said his view is that a law student can learn all the legal doctrine "they ought to know" in two years. But that would depend on a carefully planned curriculum. "If upon graduation in two years, the new bar admits could then take some time to learn the more practical skills, either in practice or in some other place … then it would be a perfectly rational system."

But, he added, students wouldn’t leave school with all the training they need, which would put a burden on future employers to nurture new hires.

Brad Saxton, dean at Quinnipiac University School of Law, said his law school has reduced the number of admitted students each year, part of a strategy to become more selective and, as a result, competitive in the New England law school marketplace.

There are now about 400 law students at Quinnipiac, half the enrollment of 15 years ago. This, said Saxton, has made it easier for the law school to find job opportunities for more of its graduates in a tight job market.

Saxton said he’s heard discussions that law school is too long, or "it should only be two years."

"But at the same time," he added," others are saying you should do an apprenticeship with a lawyer to get hands on training before you graduate. And then they say, maybe law school should be four years, instead of three."

With that in mind, he said, one idea might be a "multi-tiered" licensure approach, where those who would stay for three years would be qualified to handle more complex legal practices than the two-year grads. Such a system, while it might help students reduce their own dept, would create its own challenges.

For instance, the qualifications needed to perform certain types of legal work would have to be addressed by the state bar and Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. "Maybe that’s where law schools are headed, but much of the lawyer regulation that would be needed would have to be addressed," Saxton said.

Contacted last week, some current UConn law students expressed concern that those who graduated from two–year programs would have a hard time competing for jobs with those who spent three years studying law and received J.D. degrees.

"All of the lawyers that do the hiring went to law school for three years to get a J.D. and that’s how it’s been for a long time," Michael A. Pellin, a 1L from Suffield said. "I wouldn’t want to enter the job market with a master’s in law and have a partner ask me why I don’t have a J.D."

Linda Cheng, a 2L from New York City, said she recognized that a two-year degree would be a big savings, financially.

"But for me, I don’t think it is enough time for one to fully grasp and or develop skills," she said, adding that a shorter, cheaper option might hurt the job market even more. "A two-year degree would make it more desirable to become a lawyer."•

The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal, affiliates of the Connecticut Law Tribune, contributed to this report.