A recent article in the National Law Journal previews a potential new impetus for innovation in legal education: the specter of losing students in what would have been their third year of law school.
What if only two years of law school were required before students could decide to sit for the bar? New York’s Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s comments indicate that there may be openness to the idea from a judge’s point of view. “[This] proposal challenges all of us involved in legal education to, whatever the length of law school, look at how we can do better.”
But it’s NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher who points out that shortening mandatory legal education to two years would do more than make law schools consider how to improve – it would incentivize innovation, forcing law schools to articulate what students will learn and how they will benefit from remaining in school through their third year. According to the NLJ article, Professor “Estreicher argues that making the third year optional would reduce the cost of attendance by one third, while giving law schools incentive to experiment with their third year curricula. If students don’t see value in that final year, they could take the bar exam instead and law schools would surrender the final year of tuition.”
This idea has been around for a long time. With the economic and employment picture for lawyers as dim as it continues to be, will it finally gain more traction? And if it did, would it necessarily change legal education in ways that benefit the students, their future clients, and society?
Many law professors and administrators could envision a better third year of law school, devoted to the integration of theory and practice, to deepening students’ understanding of professional role, and to becoming thoroughly proficient at the legal research and writing skills that require more time, attention, and repetition than schools are always able to provide.
But if the bar exam didn’t change, there would most likely be pressure for the third year to provide more and more bar exam prep instead. That could be a good thing, if the bar exam were better at measuring competence in more of what lawyers need to be able to do. Would changing the length of mandatory law school to two years, making the third year optional, have any chance of forcing innovation in the bar exam? I wish I thought so.
Filed under: Catalysts For Change