In addition to various internal changes for reducing costs and attracting more students, law schools in some states are offering or considering reduction of mandatory legal education from the traditional three years to two. Such moves were made possible by the American Bar Association’s 2004 decision to change the six-semester requirement for accredited law schools to 24 months.
In 2008, Northwestern University became the first top 10 law school to offer a two-year J.D. degree. A few schools have since followed suit and a number of others are considering such a change. There are variations in the programs being considered. Some involve additional summer sessions, which, depending upon their extent, may or may not result in satisfying the ABA 24-month minimum for a J.D. Others may factor in relevant employment.
In some situations, law schools are offering alternate programs for students. One would continue the usual three-year requirement and the other would give students an option to elect a two-year program, creating two unequal levels of law school graduates. It is conceded by some such schools that graduates with a three-year degree will, initially at least, capture the more prestigious jobs and enhanced wages.
A two-year legal program after obtaining a four-year bachelor’s degree is not to be mistaken as being the same as the existing three-plus-three years program where the student spends three years as an undergraduate and three full years in law school, obtaining a B.A. at the end of the first year of law. Such programs have had long and widespread acceptance, including in New Jersey (presently at Seton Hall and Rutgers-Camden law schools and formerly at Rutgers-Newark). In such cases, it is the undergraduate time that is reduced, not the law school time.
We appreciate the observation of the dean of Vermont Law School that a two-year legal education is an appropriate response to concerns about the financial aspects of legal education, in that it "reduces the cost of legal education and allows students to enter the work force a year earlier."
But on balance, we align ourselves with those who believe that there is more at stake than finances. The first two years of study are mostly devoted to what the law is — that is, sufficient information to pass a bar exam. The third year deals largely with the circumstances in which the law is applied, which should include practical clinical work under law school supervision, law review and moot court. It provides an opportunity to see the law’s effect in various areas, giving the student a time to reflect on which areas are personally of most interest. And it engages the mind more broadly in legal problem solving, both orally and in writing.
The third year is, in practical terms, a graduate period within a graduate program, which should not be compressed into the first two-year’s experience.