July 03, 2009
The One-Year Law School
Posted by Gordon Smith

As soon as our new Dean announced my appointment as Associate Dean for Faculty and Curriculum, my email inbox started to fill with various messages relating to law school administration. Among these messages was one that linked approvingly to Paul Lippe's "Welcome to the Future: Time for Law School 4.0."

On my first spin through the article, I thought it was just another rant on legal education, but Bill Henderson caused me to take a closer look. Bill uses the article as a springboard for talking about the apprenticeship model, but I am not sure Bill fully appreciated Paul's radical proposal. Bill asks, "is it appropriate to shorten law school to two years?" But that is not what Paul is proposing. Here is a quick outline of Law School 4.0:

The diagnosis: "Students graduate from law school with a lot of debt but without client-marketable skills," and "It's no surprise that law graduates don't acquire client-marketable skills, since so many law faculty don't care much about the practice of law." (Ho hum.)

The aspiration: "Law schools will have to produce fully functioning lawyers who can quickly become economically viable--not just proto appellate clerks." (More ho hum. This is a restatement of that age-old demand from practicing lawyers that law schools produce students who can "hit the ground running.")

The solution: "An accelerated curriculum, with no more than a year of case method, a year of clinical, and then a year of externship with subject area focus, along the lines of medical school."

That last bit is where I did a double take: law school is technically three years, but law students receive only one year of classroom instruction!

Given that clinical instruction is much more expensive than classroom instruction, I think it's fair to say that Paul's proposal would increase substantially the debt burden of most law graduates. And while we might be able to argue about it, I am pretty confident that Paul's proposal would not produce fully functioning lawyers. Even if a year of clinical work and a year-long externship taught them substantial lawyering skills, graduates from Paul's law school would suffer from having a much narrower exposure to substantive law than current law graduates. My guess is that Paul would concede that fully functioning lawyers need both lawyering skills and a knowledge of substantive law,* and his proposal simply strikes a different balance on instructional priorities than current law schools.

All law schools attempt to balance these instructional priorities, but the hard question is, what is the right balance? As I have observed in a prior post, "More this and more that inevitably means less of something else." So if you are going to reform legal education, you need to identify the opportunity costs. To his credit, Paul is willing to name his sacrifice: instruction in substantive law.

But we need more detail, and it should be easy to produce. What I want to know is this: if you had only one year of classroom instruction -- that's about 30 credits worth of classes -- what would you teach? Or, stated another way, what would you leave for the students to learn on the job? Once we know that, we can talk more intelligently about whether students would be better able to acquire missing lawyering skills (under the current system) or missing substantive knowledge (under Paul's proposal) while engaged in the practice of law.

* When I refer to knowledge of substantive law, I intend to include the skill of legal analysis, which is the primary skill taught in many substantive law courses. One possible implication of Paul's proposal is that law students would obtain less training in legal analysis, one of the areas in which law schools shone, according to the Carnegie Report.

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