Judge José Cabranes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit endorsed a two-year legal education in a 2012 speech before the AALS, but suggested that a third year could be spent apprenticing with practicing attorneys or in law school clinics. Cabranes acknowledged that such a change would hurt law schools' bottom lines. Estreicher did not include an apprenticeship component in his proposal because he thought it unlikely that enough legal employers would take on students, he said.
The Arizona Supreme Court has been tinkering with bar-exam timing; in December, it approved a pilot program allowing law students to take the test during February of their 3L year. However, the students must be close to completing the full, three-year curriculum.
Unless the ABA changes its accreditation standards, New York students who opt to take the bar instead of completing their 3L years would not receive juris doctor degrees. (The ABA requires completion of 83 credit hours for a J.D. A handful of schools offer accelerated, two-year J.D. programs, but students still must meet the 83-credit minimum.)
Convincing the New York Court of Appeals would require significant support from practicing attorneys and professional organizations, Estreicher acknowledged. Practicing attorneys tend to be receptive to the idea because many recall their 3L years as worthless, he said.
Verizon Communications Inc. general counsel Randal Milch counts himself among that number. "I couldn't wait to get out of law school. I absolutely would have taken the two-year option," said Milch, who will moderate the discussion on January 18. "I think it's important for upper-tier schools like NYU, which has gifted students and high placement rates, to be the ones leading this charge." Several New York law deans said they welcomed the discussion but questioned the plan's feasibility and whether it actually would help students. "I think this proposal reflects that everything is on the table right now in terms of rethinking the existing law school curriculum," said Nicholas Allard of Brooklyn Law School. "It also reflects the need to ensure that law school is relevant." Brooklyn Law is exploring a two-year accelerated program that would award J.D. degrees, he said.
WHAT DO EMPLOYERS WANT?
Patricia Salkin, dean of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, fears the two-year option wouldn't satisfy legal employers' demands for practice-ready attorneys. "If students spend the first and second years taking core courses, when are they going to develop the practical skills that firms say they want?" she said. "And for the students, will the firms hire someone with only two years of law school, even if they pass the bar?"
The answer to that question, at least for the law firms, judges and federal agencies that tend to hire a large chunk of NYU graduates, is likely no, said dean Richard Revesz. He predicted that few NYU students would be interested in the two-year option. "I'm not a fan of the proposal," he said. "I think it would not be beneficial, but I'm interested in hearing a lot of viewpoints." Revesz said he is skeptical that a two-year option would be an added incentive for schools to revamp curriculum, given that many including NYU have already changed their 3L curricula or are weighing such reforms.
Outside of New York, Northwestern University School of Law dean Daniel Rodriguez agreed that large law firms were unlikely to hire lawyers with only two years of legal education, but said the flexibility might make sense for students pursuing nonlaw firm jobs.
"I'm intrigued by the idea," Rodriguez said. "It's encouraging that there is some open-mindedness among those in a position to effect change. The spirit of the debate, driven by economic factors, strikes me as a good thing. If now is not the time to have this discussion, then when?"
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.