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Should It Take 2 Or 3 Years To Earn A Law Degree?


Law students are looking for some changes to their education. The American Bar Association plans to issue a report in the next few weeks, recommending a major overhaul of how law schools operate. And students are hoping that a recent comment from President Obama, will boost one reform in particular: cutting law schools down to two years, from three.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: There is an old joke about law school - that in the first year, they scare you to death, in the second, they work you to death, and in the third, they bore you to death. Apparently, the president has heard that one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.

SMITH: President Obama, who has been on both sides of the lectern, says after two years, law students would be better off clerking or working in a firm, than spending another $30,000 or $40,000 on more classes.

OBAMA: This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I'm in my second term so I can say it.


SMITH: It's not hard to understand - that as much as students would be thrilled to see their tuition cut by a third, law schools would not appreciate the cut in revenues.

SAM ESTREICHER: I'm not very popular at the New York University School of Law.

SMITH: NYU law professor Sam Estreicher is one of those pushing hardest for law students to be allowed to finish school and take the bar exam after two years. It's not that he necessarily wants the third year to disappear...

ESTREICHER: Part of a strategy here is to light a fire under the law schools. I think once they realize that the third year of revenue is cut off because the state is not going to require it, they will have to redesign that third year to make it more relevant to what these students need.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So now, escape of ferae naturae cuts off ownership....

SMITH: At Boston College, as elsewhere, first year students spend most their time in core requirements like this property class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Tully, do you...

TULLY: Maybe he should have known that wasn't it.

SMITH: He knew or should have known...

But by their third year, students typically move on to electives like - the so-called law and classes - as in law and literature, women and film, or Catholic social thought. It's time - some say - that would be better spent getting real world practical experience.

Northeastern University Law School requires students to work for 12 months over their three years. Professor Roger Abrams says it makes students much more ready to practice than even he was.

ROGER ABRAMS: The first time I saw a deposition was the first deposition that I took as lawyer. Whereas, my students will be sitting in on depositions and maybe helping prepare them.

SMITH: Students also need a third year to develop some expertise once they've decided whether they want to be, for example, a corporate, or family or trial lawyer, says University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas, and you can't do all that, he says, in two years.

MICHAEL OLIVAS: I think that's half-baked. If we can't produce practice-ready lawyers after three years, how are we going to resist them after two years?

SMITH: The American Bar Association, that accredits U.S. law schools, has resisted the idea of a two-year program. ABA president Jim Silkenat says lopping off a year just to save money makes no sense.

JIM SILKENAT: It's like, you know, buying a suit, you have a better suit if you get both the coat and pants and not just the coat.

SMITH: Instead, Silkenat says students, already have the option of cramming three years of courses into two - they pay the same tuition, but they get to start earning sooner.

Another idea is to offer a quicker certification to become a kind of limited practitioner - kind of like a nurse practitioner.

BC Law School Dean Vincent Rougea agrees reforms are needed, but suddenly slashing to two years, he says, would be dangerous.

VINCENT ROUGEA: Is there fat in the system? Yes. There are things that we could change. But, you know, we don't to throw the baby out with bathwater. We don't want to - I mean, you know, you have a lot of things at stake.

SMITH: The idea gives even some students pause. BC's Jason Triplett says he'd love law school to be cheaper, but he says that might backfire on students trying to find already scarce legal jobs.

JASON TRIPLETT: I worry that making it more affordable will make it more attractive and then, then what do you have, an even more saturated field with no jobs.

SMITH: As one lawyer put it, lopping off a year of law school is such a radical idea - those who are making the case for it, are the ones who have the burden of proof.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.