There has been significant comment recently about the high cost of obtaining a legal education together with the tough job market for young lawyers. Currently, a student must first obtain a college degree, which typically takes four or five years to complete, and then must complete three years of law school before being permitted to take a bar examination. Tuition at most schools is very high, and so students can amass a large amount of debt by the time they graduate. When the prospect of finishing school with so much debt is combined with the shrinkage in the job market, especially for jobs in the higher-paying law firms, there is reason to examine avenues for reducing the cost of obtaining a legal education.
One current proposal is to reduce the amount of required law school training to two years. For reasons noted below, I believe that there is a much better vehicle for addressing this problem. Instead of reducing the years in law school, I propose a substantial reduction in the amount of required general undergraduate education.
The principal objective for change is to reduce the cost of the students’ education and permit them to begin earning income sooner. That would ease a student’s financial burden. The plea for eliminating one year of law school training is only partially motivated by financial concerns. It also responds to the fact that law schools have expanded their curriculum to include a number of courses that are only marginally related to preparation for law practice. To the extent that dispensing with the third year of law school would result in a reduction in the number of such courses that a student would take, little would be lost in the student’s preparation for practice. It is unlikely, however, that the law schools will lose their fascination for ­extrinsic courses, and so a student’s second year of law would still include them. A ­better solution is to retain the three-year law school requirement and reduce the ­number of years of required undergraduate education. Given that law schools will persist in replicating some liberal arts education, there is no need to require that much general education. Moreover, a reduction of required general education would provide much greater financial relief to students. I propose that only one year of general undergraduate education be required.
Is it reasonable to change law school to be an undergraduate program? Some other professional training programs consist of undergraduate education. For example, a student can major in the business school after one or two years of general classes. We should also take note of the legal education systems employed in many other countries. In most of Europe, the legal education required to qualify for eligibility for law practice is not a postgraduate program. It is true that after graduating, the student may be required to receive practical training for one or two years, but that does not increase the amount of nonlegal training the student receives.
My proposal is to cease requiring an undergraduate degree as a condition for enrolling in a law school or being admitted to the bar. Instead of the current required postgraduate program, the minimum legal education required for eligibility for law practice would be an undergraduate program. The student’s freshman year would be the same as other undergraduates. After the first year, the student could be admitted to a three-year law school program. The law school could permit students to take a limited number of hours in other disciplines in addition to continuing to have interdisciplinary courses in the law school itself. The cost to the student would be greatly reduced. The student would have a total of four years of expenses as contrasted with the current seven years and would begin earning income much sooner than currently.
The proposed undergraduate program would be a minimum program for eligibility to enter the bar. If a student preferred to have more nonlaw courses before entering law school, the student could do so. A student could obtain a bachelor’s degree before entering law school if the student wished.
The law school would offer two different degrees on graduation. One degree, which might be called a Bachelor of Law or B.L. degree, would be for students who did not have a bachelor’s degree before entering law school. In general, the B.L. degree would be for students who entered law school with fewer than four years of college. Those students who had a bachelor’s degree when they entered law school would receive a different law degree on graduating. The latter degree might retain the name of Juris Doctor or J.D.
Douglas A. Kahn is the Paul G. Kauper Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.