There has been much discussion lately of whether law students and the profession would be better served by a two-year program that trades the third year for one of time gaining actual working experience and reduces the debt law students assume.
Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law will soon offer that two-year approach, but without the third year of training or the reduced debt.
Beginning in the summer of 2014, Drexel will start its "Fast Forward" program, a two-year J.D. that costs the same and requires the same amount of credits as its three-year program. The benefit, the school says, is that those in the accelerated program get to join the workforce a year sooner and live off of student loans one less year.
"The theory we are running with, and what we surveyed on, is someone in the job market now and doesn’t want to be out of the job market for three years but is willing to step out of the job market for two years," said law school Dean Roger Dennis when asked who might want to take on the pressures of a three-year degree in two years.
While one commentator praised the fact that Drexel was taking any action, he questioned whether schools should be doing more to prepare students for the job market rather than just getting them to the market faster.
Dennis said the admissions criteria for the accelerated program will not be any different than the criteria for the traditional program. But he said the school will stress the intensity of the two-year program and look for students mature enough to handle that pressure. He said that will more likely be found in those applicants already in the workforce. Students who find the compressed program too strenuous can decelerate to the traditional three-year program, Dennis said.
"Even though the tuition will be the same, it is trying to be somewhat responsive to the criticisms of legal education about cost," Dennis said. "I’m a good corporate lawyer. Time is money. And getting into the job market one full year earlier is a huge economic advantage and saving a year’s living expenses without any income against that is a huge economic advantage to those students."
Drexel, which will launch the program in May 2014, isn’t the first law school to offer a compressed model. In fact, it joins a small but growing group of schools looking to address the cost issue of legal education. The University of Dayton School of Law; Northwestern University School of Law; Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles; Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan.; Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.; and Vermont Law School also offer accelerated two-year programs. Vermont Law School charges two-thirds the price of its traditional J.D. program for the accelerated program.
Drexel did not need to get approval for the program from the American Bar Association because it is considered a scheduling option. The university would have had to receive approval, however, if it were creating a traditional, part-time evening program, Dennis said.
Potential part-time students are actually a target recruiting class for the accelerated program. Dennis said prospective students who are already in the workforce can go one of two routes — remain in the workforce and do a four-year, part-time program or step out of the workforce and finish their degree in two years.
The law school will not be admitting more students through the program, but will rather stick with its 130-student-per-class average. Dennis said that if the school meets its goal of getting 30 students enrolled in the two-year program, it would only admit 100 for the traditional three-year program.
In light of dwindling law school applications across the country, Dennis said he doesn’t anticipate that structure making the fall enrollment more competitive, though he said that would be a great collateral result.
The law school will not be adding professors to handle the additional summer courses. Dennis said initially no one would be required to teach in the summer but the school anticipates there being enough volunteers to head up the classes.
The new program will begin in May 2014, with the first semester concluding in August 2014. Students then join the traditional three-year program semesters. Dennis said students in the accelerated program could either do their high-credit co-op program in that second summer and then not have to take additional credits each subsequent semester or they could take a few courses in the summer and add more credits throughout the rest of the program.
Drexel said accelerated students have the same opportunities for the school’s co-ops, law review and clinical programs. To compensate for the fact that the accelerated students may be leaving the workforce several months early, the law school will offer an initial stipend applicable only to the first summer term, the school said.
Drexel didn’t launch this program completely blind. Dennis said it invested in a pricey market research study by SimpsonScarborough.
"We didn’t want to take the time and energy to put something together and have a party and have nobody come," Dennis said.
He said Drexel is one of only a few schools to offer the two-year program and said he thinks there is a demand for it on the East Coast.
William D. Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and a teacher of the legal profession, said the success of the two-year programs really depends on who the students are.
Henderson said it’s always better to have more options for students and the idea of saving students money through returning "opportunity costs" is a valid one.
But at the end of the day, schools with accelerated programs are still sending students out into a tough job market, just a little bit sooner, Henderson said. He said the better thing for law schools to focus on is what students get out of the programs from the time they start to the time they leave and what schools are doing to prepare students with the skills needed to compete in the job market.
"I think that we can up our game and we can make the innovation about what law faculty do with the 150 grand and the three years we get," Henderson said.
Dennis said Drexel tries to do that for all of its students, not just a particular group.
"It’s not your parents’ law school anymore," he said. "As I tell students who we’re trying to recruit, our goal is to teach you how to think like a lawyer and be like a lawyer."
As Henderson also mentioned, Dennis noted the school’s co-op programs go toward that goal. He said 90 percent of the school’s students already take advantage of an experiential learning course through either co-ops in the legal community or clinical programs. Drexel, Dennis said, is now set to make that a mandatory part of its legal education.