In recent years, the late Antonin Scalia questioned whether the traditional law school education has to take three years, with the justice griping that too many upper-level classes explore fluff and are not focused on educating students in the law. Similarly, law school critic Brian Tamanaha has also said there should be a two-tiered system of law schools: one elite track that promotes legal scholarship, and another, non-elite track, that has a program of study that transfers basic legal skills to its students and takes just two years to complete.
President Obama, highlighting ways to make law school more affordable and lower student debt burdens, joined in the chorus, opining that perhaps law school could be completed in two years. Obama’s concerns are shared by Tamanaha: i.e., that law school is too pricey at current tuition rates and one way to provide value to students while keeping costs down is to eliminate one year of training.
At the same time that these critics from without and within the academy have argued that law schools spend too much time with their students, the practicing bar has long lamented that when law students graduate, they are not “practice ready”: their law school training was not sufficient for them to engage fully in the practice of law when they leave law school. Moreover, going back at least over twenty years, to the American Bar Association’s MacCrate Report, law schools have been told they are not instilling in law students the skills and values essential to the practice of law. Echoing such concerns, and weighing in on the law-school-in-two-years debate, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that two years would be fine for a law degree, but it would not teach students the craft of lawyering nor would it instill in them the values of the profession. Similarly, I have argued elsewhere that so-called “Law and…” courses, which Scalia decried, help round out the law school education and expose students to new ways of looking at the law and their place within the legal profession.
Indeed, it is hard to square the “law schools are doing too much” argument with the “law schools are doing too little” one. Responding to the latter argument, schools have expanded their offerings to include more experiential components and more values-based training in an effort to prepare students to serve clients and participate fully in the profession immediately upon graduation.
In an effort to respond to the first argument, though, a number of law schools have begun to offer two-year juris doctor degrees, including all of the credits one would earn in three years into a two-year course of study. One would think that this would mean schools are offering students a bargain, lopping off one year of tuition for the ability to graduate a year early. Surprisingly, most schools offering a two-year JD are not reducing tuition; they are charging students three years of tuition for a two-year course of study.
Recently, however, my institution, Albany Law School, responding to the critics, like the President, who argue that law school is too expensive, has announced it will offer a two-year JD, at the cost of two years of tuition. Like other two-year JD programs, the academic program of study is the same in terms of how many credits students must complete to earn their degree, whether they do it in two or three years, but the cost of the program is one-third less than the traditional JD.
We believe the program will appeal to prospective students who are interested in pursuing a degree on an accelerated track so that they can get back to work sooner after starting their studies and save some money while they are doing it. We anticipate that this will attract students who are already in the working world, who are cost conscious, sensitive to losing the three years in their professional development that a traditional three-year program would cost, and hope to enhance their credentials and earning potential in as short a time as possible.
The program is being launched with a January 2017 start date. Time will tell whether such an approach will attract students and offer them real value, both in the short and long run.
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