June 20, 2008
The Two-Year Law School
Posted by Gordon Smith

Last fall I wrote this as part of my advice to Erwin Chemerinsky:

Provide all of that improved instruction in two years. In the U.S., the pressure to move to two-year programs has been building, and, as my new dean pointed out to me recently, the globalization of law practice will increase that pressure, as American training (seven years of university education) is placed in competition with international training (five or six years of university education).

Now comes this from Northwestern University Law School:

In a move that could shake up legal education, Northwestern University School of Law plans to announce Friday that it will begin offering students a chance to get a law degree in two years instead of the traditional three.

Becoming the first top-tier law school—and the third in the country—to offer an accelerated program is the latest change at a school that is departing from the traditional focus on legal reasoning and case-law analysis to also teach skills such as accounting, teamwork and project management.

I heartily endorse these changes. Well done, Northwestern!

UPDATE: Bill has lots more detail on the program and Northwestern's innovations over the past decade, and Larry sings in Bill's choir, asking:  What about relying on the market to decide?

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Comments (16)

1. Posted by Jake on June 20, 2008 @ 20:33 | Permalink

Gordon --

Normally I view you as a sane voice. Your apparent advocacy of 2-year law school programs, as opposed to the 3-year standard we all know so well, gives me reason to reconsider that assessment.

Law profs have a duty to turn out minimally competent lawyers. The law school professoriate is not meeting this end.

2. Posted by anwalt kanton st.gallen on June 20, 2008 @ 23:43 | Permalink

Thanks for the inof. I found your post very helpful.

3. Posted by Gordon Smith on June 21, 2008 @ 0:50 | Permalink


So perhaps we should move to four years of law school? Or five? Surely we could accomplish your assigned task in that much time.

The issue, of course, is whether the time spent in law school might be more usefully spent in practice. The practicing bar has demanded more practice-oriented training, and law schools have changed dramatically over the past several decades in response to that demand. These changes have made legal education more expensive, but still we hear (or read, in the case of your comment) that legal education is failing to accomplish the assigned task.

Hmm. At some point, don't you stop to wonder whether you have given law schools the right assignment?

Some reformers want to turn law school into all practice all the time. (Go read some of the comments over on Taxprof Blog in response to my original post.) But if that's the best model, shouldn't we just go back to apprenticeships and dispense with classroom education altogether?

I don't know whether the two-year law school is the best way to structure professional training, but I like the notion that law schools should focus on what they should do best: classroom instruction. Moreover, the two-year law school may be inevitable. At least I can state with some confidence that the market forces in that direction are growing.

4. Posted by Matt Bodie on June 21, 2008 @ 11:01 | Permalink

I haven't seen specifics, but it looks like the NU two-year program just squeezes the existing credit hours into two years, rather than three. Gordon, I'm wondering whether you think the two-year program should have the same number of hours as the current three-year model, or whether the ABA and AALS should reduce the number of credit hours in moving to a two-year model.

5. Posted by M.D. Fatwa on June 21, 2008 @ 13:46 | Permalink

Gordon, your comment to Jake is a good one, but Matt makes an excellent point -- cramming 3 years into 2 years (and charging the same fare) doesn't address any of the issues you cite. (And the argument you cite by Chemerinsky is just silly -- the legal profession in the United States is a guild. There is no "globalization" pressure because legal services in the U.S. are monopolized by this guild. You want to incorporate in Delaware, register with the SEC, or defend yourself against a class action lawsuit in Texas, you will be hiring a lawyer licensed to practice in at least some state in the United States. And to be a member of the bar in most states, you have to go to an American law school. Where's this international competitive pressure?)

6. Posted by Gordon Smith on June 22, 2008 @ 6:44 | Permalink

Matt, NW's program is required to have the same number of credits or it cannot be accredited. My applause is aimed at the direction of the move. Also I like the substantive changes they have made to the curriculum (as described in the article: "teach skills such as accounting, teamwork and project management") and the fact that they value work experience in admissions. All of these are good innovations, I believe, and I believe the pressure to reduce credit hours (from students, who are too burdened by debt under the present system, and by globalization) will ultimately lead to that result.

M.D., The competitive pressure comes from elite international transactional practice and it will trickle down from there. It won't happen tomorrow, but I think it will happen sooner than most of us in legal education expect.

7. Posted by Boris on June 22, 2008 @ 10:44 | Permalink

The main benefit and attraction of 2 vs 3 years is a 1/3 cost savings. Which given the price of law school versus the average salary of lawyers is a non-trivial consideration.
I have always been upset by how much my law school cost compared to the value I received in education (and my company paid for it).

8. Posted by Fred Tung on June 22, 2008 @ 16:00 | Permalink

On the pressure of international competition, legal outsourcing is already happening. Just like call centers, India has a wealth of low-cost, English-fluent people who can be the "back office" of law firms or corporate counsel offices. Sure, you need to hire a Delaware lawyer to appear in Chancery Court, but her briefs don't have to be drafted by local lawyers--only signed by them.

On outsourcing to India, see http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1727726,00.html.

9. Posted by Matt Bodie on June 22, 2008 @ 16:26 | Permalink

Boris's comment is an example of why I think the press around this change has been confusing. It's not as if Northwestern has cut out a year of legal education. It has instead condensed the normal course of study into two years plus the summer before. (So wouldn't this be two-and-a-half years? 2.3 years?) I'm all in favor of experimenting with different ways of approaching the requirements, and many students may find Northwestern's plan to their liking. Plus, the other curricular changes sound like they have a lot of promise. But it's not as if law school has gone from three years to two years. And no, Boris, your tuition will not be cut by 33%.

10. Posted by Jake on June 22, 2008 @ 19:52 | Permalink

Gordon states: "I like the notion that law schools should focus on what they should do best: classroom instruction."

If this is truly what law schools excel at, and what the legal employment marketplace prizes, then three years of classroom instruction is better than two, correct?

But market forces are said to run to the contrary. Hmmm. Maybe classroom instruction is not what the market prizes?

Why not just offer a one-year curriculum that focuses on the basics of legal reasoning and how to write? Law schools thus would be like trade schools, and turn out "lawyers" like auto mechanics.

This comparison is illustrative only, and not intended to slight auto mechanics in the least.

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