There is no doubt in Emma Bean's mind: She wants to be a lawyer — a public defender, to be specific.
"I can remember being little and reading stories in the newspaper about different court cases or people who had been accused of different crimes and how the trials were unfolding," the Colorado Springs, Colo., native said. "Then when I was a freshman in high school I joined my school's mock trial team. That was it. There was nothing else I think I could do with my life."
Fortunately for the aspiring lawyer, she has already secured a spot at the University of Kansas School of Law — in the class of 2019. The 18-year-old Bean is one of 14 incoming college freshmen who have snagged a seat at the Lawrence, Kan., law school under its new 3+3 Program, which essentially shaves a year off the undergraduate degree and allows participants to earn both bachelor's and juris doctor degrees in six years. In addition to saving time, it eliminates a year's tuition.
"I liked the idea of being able to get out there and do what I want to do faster," said Bean, who is counting down the days until her move into her new dorm. "The tuition was probably my second thought when I learned about the program. I'm on my own paying for law school, so that's a blessing."
These programs have been cropping up with increasing frequency during the past two years as competition for law students has stiffened and would-be lawyers grow ever more sensitive to the price of a J.D. Law schools and university administrators alike view them as a valuable recruiting tool targeting the high-achieving and motivated students who are already thinking seriously about law school during their teenage years.
At least two dozen law schools offer some form of a 3+3, with more schools joining the list each month. Kansas Law announced its program in January and is now working with the inaugural cohort of freshmen. The University of Denver Sturm College of Law in July announced its own program. In April, the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center unveiled a new 3+3 program in partnership with the University of Central Florida, and Stetson University College of Law went public with a partnership with the University of South Florida.
Atlanta's John Marshall Law School in March said it would offer a program with Robert Morris University, while Thomas M. Cooley Law School in June announced a 3+3 program with Oakland University.
The 3+3 concept isn't new — Pace Law School has had one for 20 years, for example. But law schools are adding programs and doing more to promote existing ones, Touro Law dean Patricia Salkin said. Touro has operated accelerated programs with several nearby colleges for years, but they rarely found takers. "My experience has been that very few people took advantage of it, in part because few people even knew about it," she said. "I think that's changing."
The programs' details vary, but they tend to follow the same general format. Participants fulfill the core requirements of their undergraduate major during their first three years in college, then move directly into law school without having completed their bachelor's degree. The credits they earn during their 1L years count toward their J.D.s and as electives to complete their undergraduate degrees. Students graduate with a bachelor's degree after their 1L year, then finish the last two years of law school. (The American Bar Association allows schools to admit students who don't yet hold bachelor's degrees as long as they obtain one by the time they graduate from law school.)
Participants in the 3+3 programs still have to take the Law School Admission Test before they show up at law school, and most schools set minimum LSAT scores and grade-point averages to ensure their spot. Some programs are open only to applicants still in high school and choosing a college; others allow students to apply as late as their junior year of college.
Latecomers tend to have a harder time because the programs' structure forces students to be strategic in their class scheduling — participants have less leeway to take electives, change majors or spend a semester abroad as undergraduates. Moreover, they forfeit the chance to work for a year or two after college and gain life experience before showing up for law school.
"You've got to be pretty motivated and pretty directed to do this," said Denver Law dean Martin Katz, who hopes to enroll between seven and 15 students per year in his school's program. "A lot of your three years of undergrad is going to be spent making sure you get the requirements of your major. This program really isn't for everyone, but there are some folks out there who know going into college that they want to be a lawyer."
The 3+3 represents a fairly low-risk proposition for students. If they have a change of heart about attending law school as an undergraduate, they can withdraw from the program and finish their bachelor's degrees in the traditional four years without penalty. They can even leave after their 1L year with their bachelor and are not obligated to finish their J.D.s in most cases.
Some programs — including those at Denver and Kansas — promise students perks including specialized academic advising, a transition-to-law-school class, law-oriented field trips or help preparing for the LSAT.
However, students who commit early have little incentive to explore their other options for law school and forgo the opportunity to leverage multiple law school admissions offers into better financial aid packages. Several deans said 3+3 participants have the same shot at scholarships as do traditional applicants, and some law schools promise to match undergraduate scholarships for a year or more.
The program at Pace, which is only open to Pace undergrads, has been a good fit for Christopher Schweitzer, 23, who is on track to earn his J.D. in 2014. The program was one of the primary reasons why the Philadelphia native chose to attend Pace, and he managed to double major in philosophy and religious studies in the three years before he started law school in 2011.
"It saved me a year, and it looks great on résumés," said Schweitzer, who has spent this summer helping clients at New York Legal Assistance pursue medical, Social Security and public-benefit claims. "I think it's opened the door to opportunities and internships. People seem impressed by it and are more willing to talk to you."
The benefits for students are fairly straightforward: They save time and money. (ABA figures show that the average tuition at private law schools has increased by 59 percent during the past decade while public school tuition for residents has increased by 115 percent. Students at private law schools borrow an average $122,158 and those at public schools $84,600.)
It's less obvious why university administrators would forfeit a year of undergraduate tuition. "Essentially, you are giving away money," Katz said. "Funda­mentally, you have to see this as a recruiting tool. You can't see it as a money-making tool." Even so, securing a student for an accelerated six-year program is preferable to having them for four years as an undergraduate, then watching them leave for another three years of law school somewhere else, he said.
Not to mention that undergraduate programs are also competing for quality students, said Michael Frumkin, dean of Central Florida's College of Health & Public Affairs. He and Touro's Salkin hatched the idea for the two schools to offer a cross-state 3+3 program following a chance meeting at a party in 2012. Central Florida has one of the largest undergraduate legal studies programs in the country with about 850 students, of whom approximately 40 percent eventually go to law school. Central Florida administrators never expressed concern about losing a year of tuition ($6,246 a year for Florida residents), he said, adding that the school just completed a similar agreement with nearby Barry University School of Law in Orlando.
"We're hoping to attract a larger percentage of students with high academic credentials," Frumkin said. Central Florida and Touro also plan to forge closer academic ties through student and faculty exchanges, joint lectures and collaborative projects, he added.
Kansas Law dean Stephen Mazza met resistance from central university administrators when he first pitched a 3+3 program five years ago. A new provost and a changing law school landscape made for a more favorable reception the second time around, and the program is proving popular. Approximately 60 people either applied for a slot or expressed serious interest, he said, although the school decided to accept just 14 students.
Eighteen-year-old Nate Crosser first learned about Kansas' program during an interview for admission to Northwestern University. The interviewer was a Northwestern graduate who went on to law school at Kansas. When Crosser mentioned his intention to become an attorney, she asked whether he had looked into the Kansas 3+3 program.
"I had a couple of good offers at other universities, but I felt like K.U. offered the most unique opportunity," said Crosser, who lives in nearby Olathe, Kan.
The rise of the 3+3 program may well benefit the handful of students who opt in, but slicing a year off the undergraduate program does little to address the larger problem of rising law school costs, said New York University law professor Samuel Estreicher.
Estreicher has been pushing for a pilot program in New York that would allow students to complete two years of law school then spend a year apprenticing, after which the court system would waive them in to sit for the bar. The proposal would eliminate one year of law school tuition and give students a year of real-world practice experience, although Estreicher has yet to convince New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to sign on.
"In general [a 3+3 program] could have some economies for the student, but I'm a little suspicious," Estreicher said. "This seems to be motivated by public relations. There's less here than meets the eye. You have to fundamentally change the economics of a law degree." Moreover, relatively few incoming college students know for sure that they want to go to law school and even fewer know what law school would be right for them, he said.
For his part, Crosser sees few downsides, except perhaps eschewing a double major given the time constraints of the undergraduate program. The law school has even pledged to extend his undergraduate scholarship.
"Of course it would be great to go to a Harvard Law or Yale or one of those places. But K.U. law will be great as well," Crosser said. "The cool thing is, if I get to the end of that third year and I change my mind and decide I don't want to go to law school, it's not like I've wasted any time. I can just pick up where I left off."
Karen Sloan can be contacted at email@example.com.