David Lat and I were on CNBC’s Power Lunch with Dan Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern Law School, discussing whether law school should be two years. As I mentioned earlier today, this debate got started again when President Obama said that he thought law school should last only two years, at least in terms of classroom instruction. Please see my earlier post if you’d like to talk about why Obama’s thought bubble was literally the least useful thing he could have done to effectuate the change he desires.
Here, we’re going to talk about whether Obama’s idea is good in the first place. Should law school be two years long? Let me rephrase that question: is there any possible justification for forcing people to sit through a third year of law school if they don’t want to?
First off, here’s our spot on Power Lunch, with host David Faber:
A commenter on Lat’s Facebook page said: “You and Elie make a great team on TV. His larger than life personality and your cool, calm, intellectual demeanor make for great TV.” Thanks. I like being the fat, excitable one who is probably two years away from having a heart attack on live television.
In any event, I was really hoping CNBC would get somebody like Lawrence Mitchell to come on and call 3L year the “capstone” of the legal educational experience. Then I could laugh and mock him on live television. Instead, Dean Rodriguez from Northwestern Law had to do the heavy lifting in defense of the third year while Lat and I explained various ways in which it is a total waste of time.
Thing is, Dean Rodriguez basically agrees that the third year as currently constituted doesn’t give a whole lot of value to students who are asked to pay full price. He wrote an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year challenging law school to “earn” the third year by allowing students to choose whether or not to sign up for a third year or complete their studies in two. Northwestern itself offers a two-year law degree (though of course they charge people for three years). The ABA still requires Northwestern to put people through three years’ worth of credit hours; the Northwestern program just jams those credit hours into two years, including summers, and charges “by the degree.”
Obviously, the real benefit of reducing law school to a two-year proposition is to cut a third of the price off of law school tuition. There isn’t really a good argument for why law school must be three years. If people can go to school for two years, pass the bar, and get a job, why in the world should we force them to sit there and pay for another year of education?
And look, you can find a lot of law students who “loved” their third year of law school. I, for one, had a freaking ball. Armed with a job at Debevoise that couldn’t be taken away from me unless I murdered somebody, I played 20-plus seasons of Madden football, I was in a musical, I went to Mexico for spring break and stayed some extra days ’cause whatever, and I drank so much that in any other situation, somebody would have tried to get me to go to a meeting. Yay 3L year! Don’t act like I’m the only one.
Even if you think that the third year of law school should be modified to focus on more practical skills, it’s still hard to justify forcing students to pay for that practical training at full price when at least some of them could get on-the-job training while earning a salary. Let’s remember, the third year of law school is also usually the most expensive year of law school, because law schools have been jacking up your tuition while you are on campus. Can anybody tell me why a student should be forced to pay more money for their third year of law school than they did for their first?
Of course not. It’s a ridiculous argument. There is no version of events that can justify the requirement of going to three years of law school before you can sit for the bar exam or become a licensed attorney. Even Dean Rodriguez didn’t have a really good answer for what “earning it” would look like. And he said that students should be given the choice so they could “vote with their feet.” So, yeah, if you want to spend or borrow money to take a third year of clinical programs and Law and Basket Weaving, feel free. But if you want to learn the basics (1L year), take some upper-level courses in a particular specialization (2L year), and then get the hell out and start earning money, there’s no good reason for the American Bar Association to prevent you from doing so.
But I don’t see many law schools lining up to voluntarily cut a third of their potential revenue because of their commitment to intellectual honesty. Like I said in the CNBC clip, the third year of law school is the rake. It’s the amount of money you have to pay to the house for the opportunity to play the game.