Law Schools

Are ‘3 + 3′ Programs A Good Idea?

In America, it takes seven years of post-secondary education to get a law degree. Then it takes any number of years to be trained “on the job” for what lawyers actually do, since American law schools excel at teaching people how to be justices and law professors as opposed to actual practitioners.

In the U.K., the system is different: law is an undergraduate degree, with law school being more like a finishing school that’s capped off with an apprenticeship program. Getting a law degree in U.K. system is much more like a quicker version of getting a medical degree in the states. Some law school reformers would like to see law schools follow a model more like medical school or U.K. law schools.

Enter the so-called “3+3″ law school program. Universities and law schools have been tinkering with ways to get motivated students on a fast-track through legal education. Recently, a top-50 law school announced that it would be offering this accelerated option that would allow people to shave a year off of their overall education time.

Is it worth it? We spoke with the dean…

Earlier this week, the University of Iowa College of Law announced a 3+3 program that allows undergraduates to start law school a year early. From the law school:

The new 3+3 program will allow qualified undergraduates from UI and ISU admission to the College of Law after the conclusion of their junior year, and the credits earned during their first year of law school will also apply to their undergraduate degree.

Gail Agrawal, dean of the College of Law, says the program will allow qualified Iowa college students the opportunity to receive their bachelor’s and JD degrees after six years instead of seven, saving a year of tuition and other costs. It also gives those students a one year head start on their law career…

The program will allow students in each school’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to apply to the UI law school at the start of their junior year, instead of their senior year. If they are accepted, they would begin attending law school during what would have been their senior year, and those first year law credits would also apply to their undergraduate record.

I emailed with Dean Agrawal to get some more details about the program. Most importantly, this isn’t a way for students to free themselves from a year of law school tuition. I asked her: “How will this program be priced? Three years of “college” tuition followed by three years of “law” tuition? One price point in between for all six years?” She said:

Yes: three years of undergraduate tuition, and three years of law school tuition. (There could be variations: e.g., some students might complete three-years of academic credit in less (or more) than three years, but they would pay undergraduate tuition when enrolled in undergraduate school, and law school tuition when they are enrolled in law school.)

Well, I suppose would-be law students should take a cost savings wherever they can get it. If you know for sure that you want to go to law school, cutting a year off of your undergraduate payload isn’t a bad thing.

And with this program, you don’t have to be “sure” significantly more quickly than many people are already. I’d be worried if this program required 18-year-olds — who are even less informed about the state of the legal job market than 22-year-old graduates — to make a decision about their legal careers right as they started college. But Iowa’s 3+3 program doesn’t require people to make that call until junior year:

Students will decide in their junior year that they want to apply to law school. The undergraduate institutions will decide on the requirements that the undergraduate students must complete to be eligible to apply to the College of Law in their junior years. Those requirements might vary from major to major, department to department, or school to school. For example, an undergraduate department might decide that only students who have completed all the required courses for their undergraduate majors can apply, treating the first year of law school courses as “electives” for purposes of the undergraduate degree. Other undergraduate majors might decide that a first-year law course could substitute for an undergraduate required course…

The students’ undergraduate institution will award the students’ undergraduate degree when the student completes the first year of law school. This is part of the agreement between participating undergraduate institutions and the College of Law. There is no requirement that students finish the JD to receive an undergraduate degree.

This sounds to me like a kind of “super” early admissions program. Agrawal said that applicants will still have to take the LSAT and apply to Iowa Law like anybody else, it’s just that they can start studying (and paying) a year earlier if they know earlier that law school is right for them. Really, we’re not talking about the U.K. system, or the medical school system, we’re just talking about another way for kids to get wrapped up in law school without addressing the price or value concerns reformers have raised. I don’t mean that negatively. Agrawal emphasized that she thought the program would appeal to older, non-traditional students, and for them, a program like this makes a lot of sense:

Your questions suggest you might think this program is like some medical school programs where students apply at the start of undergraduate school to be part of an accelerated program to medical school. It isn’t. This is an option designed to allow undergraduate students to apply to law school when they are juniors and to matriculate in law school in what would have been their senior undergraduate year. The University of Iowa has other, similar programs in which undergraduate juniors can apply for admission to some Masters programs, beginning the graduate or professional program in what would otherwise have been their senior undergraduate year.

As I’ve said recently, one of the problems with legal education is that we have a “one size fits all” approach to it. That’s not how it works in “business” or “journalism” or a host of other professions that have multiple entry points. I don’t think that anybody could call 3+3 programs a solution to the problems with legal education, or even a serious reform to the system. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

If somebody were to offer a “4 + 1″ path towards getting a law degree, I’d get really excited.

UI, ISU undergraduates can earn bachelor’s and law degrees in six years [Iowa Now]

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