Northwestern University School of Law plans to launch a two-year juris doctor program in 2009, becoming the first among top law schools to offer an accelerated course of study.

Starting in May, the law school expects 40 students to begin the program, which will enable them to obtain a law degree in five semesters within two calendar years, instead of the usual three-year, six-semester program.

The accelerated program is part of Northwestern’s larger initiative, Plan 2008, which calls for an increased focus on core competencies for practicing law in addition to traditional case law analysis.

Northwestern hopes to entice students who might go to other schools to attend its shorter program and to recruit students who decide against law school because of the three-year duration, said David Van Zandt, Northwestern’s dean. “I don’t see a pedagogical reason for three years of law school,” he said.

No other highly ranked law school offers a five-semester, two-year program. In 2005, the University of Dayton School of Law announced its plan a few months after the American Bar Association changed the rule that required students to take six semesters of instruction to graduate with a juris doctor degree. At least one other school, Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, offers a six-semester, two-calendar year J.D. program.

Under Northwestern’s two-year plan, students would participate in on-campus interviews for summer associate jobs after just one semester of courses, compared with three-year students who interview for those jobs after their first year of classes.

“It’s tricky,” said Lee Miller, co-chief executive of DLA Piper. Miller participated in focus groups that worked with the law school to develop its Plan 2008.

“Sure, it would be better to have more grades, but law firms have got to roll with the punches,” he said.

Some 95% of Northwestern’s three-year students have at least one year of post-college work experience prior to attending law school. All of the students in the two-year program would have at least two years of full-time work experience before they begin.

The law school’s larger initiative calls for students in the accelerated program, and eventually those in the traditional program, to take two new courses. One course would cover quantitative analysis, such as accounting, finance and statistics, and would focus on practice dynamics, including project management. The other course would address decision-making designed to improve students’ ability to understand the clients’ strategies.