A proposal to allow students to take the New York Bar Exam after two years of law school has piqued the interest of the state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman (See Profile).
Lippman stopped short of formally endorsing the idea when it was taken out for a public airing on Jan. 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, who oversees the state's court system. The proposal, he said, "challenges all of us involved in legal education to, whatever the length of law school, look at how we can do better."
Rising law graduate debt and "the lousy job market" have brought legal education to a crossroads, Lippman said. "I don't know the answer, but I can say that we want to hear more. This is a fascinating subject."
The concept of doing away with the third year of law school, or at least making it optional, has been around for decades but has never gone much beyond discussion.
Samuel Estreicher, an NYU law professor and of counsel to Paul Hastings, recently revisited the topic in an academic article titled, "The Roosevelt-Cardozo Way: The Case for Bar Eligibility After Two Years of Law School," in the New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. (The title refers to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, both of whom studied the law at a time when two years was the norm.)
Estreicher argues that making the third year optional would reduce the cost of attendance 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 American Bar Association's law school accreditation standards require students to complete at least 83 credits; Estreicher would establish New York bar exam eligibility upon the completion of 60 credits.)
Some practitioners and legal educators at the meeting said they liked Estreicher's proposal in theory but doubted that many students would pursue the option.