Judge José Cabranes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit offered a three-part remedy for what ails the U.S. legal academy before a packed ballroom of legal educators who gathers in Washington for the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting.

Cabranes, like others before him, noted that law schools are in “something of a crisis,” given the skyrocketing cost of tuition, ever-higher graduate debts and a growing feeling that legal scholarship is of little use to the bench or practitioners. These themes emerged as the hottest topic of discussion during the four-day conference, which drew about 3,000 legal educators.

“For years, [the rising cost of tuition and growing debt loads] have raised eyebrows. Now, they raise blood pressure,” Cabranes said on Jan. 6. “These developments literally threaten the enterprise of legal education.”

To get back on track, law schools should shift their curricula back to core courses and away from the interdisciplinary classes that have grown in popularity, he said; they should introduce a two-year core law program followed by a yearlong apprenticeship, and increase transparency regarding costs, job prospects and financial aid information.

Those changes would help prospective law students accurately gage their earning potential and future debt; help graduates reduce their debt loads; and help ensure that new lawyers have solid foundations in the law and the real-world skills they need to succeed, he said.

Cabranes lamented the move by law schools toward specialized, often interdisciplinary courses that can displace “black-letter” law courses — criminal and civil procedure, evidence and federal courts. He related a story about a friend’s child who enrolled in a law school clinic focusing on housing court — but who had never taken a property law course.

Core law courses should come before clinics and interdisciplinary work, even if the latter are more popular with students and faculty, he said.

Similarly, law schools should give students the option of completing their classroom work in two years, then spend a third year apprenticing with practicing attorneys or working full-time in law school clinics while earning modest stipends, he said. That would give students real-world experience and some income rather than requiring them to pay a third year of tuition.

True, law schools would lose out on a year of tuition revenue under the plan, he acknowledged. “Converting this final year into an apprenticeship may make sense for students, law firms and clients — though not for the profitability of law schools,” he said.

A number of law schools offer accelerated J.D. and joint degree programs, Cabranes said, and he highlighted programs at Yale that allow students to obtain joint J.D./MBA degrees in three years or obtain J.D./Ph.D. degrees in finance in four years.

Cabranas also offered a harsh assessment of the scholarship that legal educators are producing. He recalled recent criticism from several Supreme Court justices that the scholarship has left “terra firma” in favor of outer space. “Legal scholarship is a conversation among members of the academy with the rest of us reading — maybe,” he said.

Similarly, Cabranes condemned a growing “cult of globalization.”Quite a few law schools have launched programs overseas, entered partnerships with foreign law schools, hosted globalization conferences, founded centers geared towards globalization and fostered student exchanges overseas. Rather than help students gain a solid foundation in the law, these are ways for law professors to “look overseas for problems to solve and people to help,” he said. Then there is the free faculty and student travel that goes along with it, he added.

“Many of these international programs are worthy endeavors…but these global intentions are mostly a distraction from the core objective of a law school,” Cabranes said.

Cabranes himself was a law professor at Rutgers University before becoming the general counsel at Yale University and later being appointed to the bench.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.