How Many Years Does It Take to Learn to Be a Lawyer?

(Photo: Mathieu Marquer)

(Photo: Mathieu Marquer)

President Obama recently proposed an interesting solution to the skyrocketing cost (and declining popularity) of law school: make it shorter:

“This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it,” Obama said during a stop at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years because [….] in the first two years young people are learning in the classroom.”

In the third year, he said, “they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

The Daily Dish reports on various responses to Obama’s suggestion.  For example, law professor Matt Bodie wonders if the change would really decrease costs:

If someone magically changed the J.D. program at my law school to two years, I wouldn’t shrug my shoulders and go, “Oh well  guess we’re only two years now!” I would work with my colleagues to figure out how we could make those two years meet the needs of our students  and pack as much in as possible. If the same U.S. News rankings remained in place, don’t you think schools would continue to compete on class size, expenses per student, and educational reputation? And wouldn’t that drive up costs? What if, in the new two-year law school, we added a clinical component, an externship component, and a 10-person small section component to the basic Contracts class, and then assigned it to a doctrinal professor, two clinical professors, and four adjuncts? That would be a better class, no?  But it’d also be a lot more expensive. A school could easily justify spending $60,000 or more a year per student  again, if the market rewarded schools for offering such classes.

While we’re on the topic, it seems only logical to ask: which other college or professional programs deserve to be shorter (or longer)?

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  1. Stan Q says:

    Engineering needs to be changed. Why are so many tests graded on a curve? Are they teaching too much and hoping enough will stick? Would it be better to have more engineering classes to give students and teachers more time? I’m not sure that the 2 required Theatre Arts classes I took were necessary. Or religious studies, macroeconomics (sorry), english lit.

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    • Mark says:

      Grading on the curve would be changed back. There wasn’t much if any of that when I was going through school 20 years ago. A lot of the professors went to great lengths to drill into us professional responsibility and if we mess up, then people can and will die. One class even analyzed design features with costs and lives saved/lost.

      The non-engineering related classes are in there to help round you out, and you never know when they will come in handy. For instance theatre helps in giving presentations and getting your point across. Religious studies can indicate cultural biases that might affect design issues, odd loading at various times of day or year for instance. English lit will help with written persuasiveness, giving you a common set of metaphors to express what you are trying to get across (“Sokath, his eyes uncovered!”) Economics… I got nothing. My electives were in philosophy (Game Theory and Logic mostly)

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    • J1 says:

      Interesting response. I haven’t been in school in quite a while – when did engineering programs start grading on a curve?

      One thing I’ve always found interesting: I never, ever, even once came across an English/Religion/Theater/Journo/ etc. major in any class I took in the College of Engineering. You need to point that out, and make clear engineering majors were required to take the classes you speak of, when somebody wants to talk about how engineers don’t get a “well rounded” education.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        There are two kinds of “grading on a curve”.

        One is that you allow only 10% of students to get the top grade, 20% to get the next, and so forth, with the worst-performing students getting a failing grade. This happened routinely when my grandmother was in college. She answered 39 out of 40 short-answer questions correctly. That was the worst score in the class, so she received an F. (The professor used the same test over and over, and the fraternities and sororities had copies in their files and told the students to memorize the answers in order, because this was a known problem.)

        The other kind is used when you write an impossibly difficult exam, and then raise the scores to reflect your view of how the students performed relative to what’s reasonable for them. This gives you things like the best student in the class only getting half the answers right, but with no quotas on how many students get high or low grades overall.

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  2. Q says:

    No offense to those who worked hard for their JDs, but why is law school considered a doctoral program anyway? It seems structured more as an extended coursework masters degree program, and why couldn’t it just be an undergraduate major? I only know about the study and practice of law secondhand from lawyer friends, but everything I know about it suggests that the current structure of law school, bar exams, etc., is designed to create barriers to entry to the profession. Some lawyers indeed do work that requires graduate level training, but how many lawyers is that true for?

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    • SD says:

      J.D. stands for Juris Doctor. It’s a doctorate because it’s a terminal degree – the highest one you can achieve in that field.

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      • Q says:

        I think causality goes the other way: it’s a terminal degree because it’s a doctorate, and I’m questioning whether it really deserves to be called a doctorate. It’s only 3 years long and doesn’t include writing a dissertation, so why not add a year of general education and call it a bachelors degree? Like I said in my original post, maybe there is a place for a PhD degree in law for those that actually want or need it, and let the rest of the aspiring lawyers spend a little less time in school.

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      • Geoff says:

        You can also get an LLM, which is beyond the JD, so I’m not sure that JD is the terminal degree.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Actually, the LLD is the terminal degree, not the LLM. The JD used to be the same as an LLM (the master’s degree).

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Pure “courtesy”. It’s properly a master’s degree program, and used to be labeled as such.

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      • Alan Gunn says:

        Until the late 1960s it was an LL.B., a (second) bachelor’s degree. It was changed because law students wanted a degree that sounded more prestigious. I was a law student at Cornell when the change occurred. We voted on it, and it went about 90% for changing. (I voted the other way, sort of a reverse snobbery thing for me, in the “I don’t need no steenkin’ doctorate” sense. Besides which, law school was so much easier than my undergrad school (geophysics major) that it seemed dumb to give me a fancier degree for law school.)

        Law schools do sometimes award LL.M. and LL.D. (or JSD) degrees, but these are not really more advanced. The LL.M. is usually for specialists (tax especially) or foreign students, and I’ve never been able to find a good reason for the LL.D. In the law teaching market these days, having a doctorate in law (as opposed to a Ph.D. in a real subject) would be regarded as a negative for a candidate.

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    • TedS says:

      Interestingly, in some countries a law degree isn’t even considered a doctoral degree. My wife is Turkish, and I’ve met a practicing lawyer friend there. Apparently they spend something like five years on their post-high school education – this combines the bachelor’s level pre-law training with the equivalent of law school training. Maybe the law is more complex in the US, but my impression is that most US lawyers still learn most of the practical side of their profession after law school anyway.

      I’m sure there are some downsides to the Turkish model. For example, I’m not sure if I’d trust a 23-year old graduate of a five year program to teach law school. Nevertheless, it does seem like we could scale back on what is considered the default training for a lawyer and maybe save the more extensive training for those who want to be law professors.

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    • Rob says:

      I am all for barriers to entry into the legal profession. The last thing we need is more lawyers.

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      • Eljay says:

        Yep – until you need one. 😉

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      • Rob says:

        Define “need”. Does Trader Joe’s NEED a lawyer to drive a local entrepreneur out of business? Does the owner of Pirate Joe’s NEED a lawyer to protect him from their harassment?

        Lawyers are kind of like nuclear weapons. The number of lawyers I need is a function of the number of lawyers that my opponent has, which is a function of how many lawyers are roaming the legal landscape. Also like nuclear weapons, I imagine that there is some optimal number to have around but I’m certain that we in the U.S. are well beyond that.

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    • ChicagoLawyer says:

      I, and my classmates studied very hard for our degrees. Grading was based on an all or nothing final test for every single class. The mind games played by professors and fellow students
      were exhausting and they were ongoing all year long.
      My impression of grad students in most fields is that pretty much everyone gets an A or B in every class. They read a lot of books, sure, but it’s not the gauntlet law school is.
      I don’t expect other grad students to put up with the grueling odyssey I went through to get my degree and later to succeed in practice for 19 years now. I don’t see why other grad students should begrudge my J.D.
      I will gladly put up my ability to apply intellectual rigor under pressure against any other graduate level person.

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  3. Mark says:

    The question really should be why are these post graduate degrees to begin with. People can be working in engineering with a 4 year degree. We trust cars, bridges and buildings to people with BS’s why shouldn’t lawyers just need an appropriate BA? For that matter why not “Doctors” with a BS?

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    • J1 says:

      I don’t know about MDs – that actually requires a level of knowledge you can’t really get in four years. But I agree, law should be a four year degree. For that matter, if you can pass the bar exam you should be allowed to practice law whether you have a degree or not.

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    • csdx says:

      Except that a fresh out of college kid is not designing a building. In order to be an engineer designing a building you have to have a Professional Engineer license, which not only requires a 4 year degree, but then a further 4 years of work under another PE, then passing the exam.

      Even in circumstances not requiring a PE, the process is still there through company hierarchy. The college hire is not the one laying down the design for a system, but the likely 20+ year veteran in the industry.

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      • J1 says:

        Your first paragraph describes the engineering equivalent of certification in a legal specialty, the second the equivalent of a law firm associate becoming a partner. An engineer can do both with a four year degree.

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  4. DanSanto says:

    I’ve got to shake my head at part of the article by the law professor.

    “If the same U.S. News rankings remained in place, don’t you think schools would continue to compete on class size, expenses per student, and educational reputation? And wouldn’t that drive up costs?”

    His knowledge of economics or even just economic common sense equals zero.

    No, that would not drive up costs. Students want their education for a lower cost. As law schools compete with each other on the items he mentioned, one of the things they do is keep their comparative costs low to attract more students. Just changing the program from three years to two doesn’t change that.

    As to which deserve to be shorter, the question touches on a host of underlying opinions centered on the view of college’s role in life.

    For people who view college as strictly a job-preparation process, then most all the undergraduate degrees could be lowered to only three years or even just two years in some cases – sort of like vo-tech.

    For those who view college as a life-preparation process, then they shouldn’t be shorted at all.

    For the record, I don’t know enough about law school to have an opinion as to whether the stuff it teaches is bloated and needs to be trimmed, or if they are packing all three years full of necessary work and can’t practically trim it down. The lawyers I know have certainly expressed that all three years of law school were very demanding.

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  5. Emz says:

    Little dirty secret – a LOT of programs could be and used to be shorter. Physical therapy and occupational therapy used to be bachelor’s programs. Now they are Master’s or Doctor of (DPT or DOT) programs. These requirements to sit for the certification exams are dictated by the professional organizations. Who usually has the most influence in these professional organizations? – academics. Who stands to financially benefit from increased time in school vis a vis tuition? – the universities. Fill in the blanks there. Do you need 6-7 years of school to competently practice in these fields? IMHO – absolutely not.

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    • MRB says:

      I think the problem is that so many more people go to college now. You still need 1% of the population (say) to work as physical therapists; only now 40% of people go to college instead of 15% like before WW2. So you have to whittle the numbers down somehow and you’ve got a glut of college graduates. So add a new level to whittle it down. Rinse, repeat.

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    • Kreaper says:

      I agree.
      Credentialism is an annotation of those in the know. It’s self-serving to have these education regulatory bodies requiring testing that, for the most part, lacks the ability to truly assess practical understanding of the material anyway.
      I’d challenge anyone to a debate on topics in my field with degrees, certifications or other that are ‘better’ or ‘further’ than mine. More often then not I find these people to be shills and to lack appropriate critical thinking skills.

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  6. Dannielle says:

    I think all the undergrad courses can be shortened by eliminating the GenEd component from degree requirements. Most students entering college have taken a full 12 years of general education and their required to prove it with a high school diploma so why do they need to take an additional class of it in college. I have a BA in Criminal Justice and I do not understand why I had to take 5 history classes to satisfy my GenEd requirements. That’s 5 classes I had to pay for which had nothing to do with my degree even though I had taken 12 years of history in grade school. The GenEd requirements add up to 2+ semesters depending on how many classes you take and that is added expense not only in cost of credits but also in over-priced books. If what they are teaching children during all 12 years of grade school is not sufficient to complete an undergrad degree then changes should be made to the grade school curriculum.

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    • Chibinium says:

      “Their required to prove it” ? Just sayin’.

      However, I absolutely agree that remediation should take place in K-12, rather than in expensive remedial classes. As for eliminating the GenEd component: many high schools offer IB and AP classes designed to let you opt out. I opted completely out of chemistry and most history because of my highschool courses. Not every highschooler takes that, though, and they pay for it later.

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      • Dannielle says:

        Shouldn’t earning a high school diploma prove it? In NY you have to take and pass regents exams and that should provide additional proof? Even those who took their GED have proven they learned since the GED is pretty much a way to test out of high school. And one cannot forget the SATs, ACTs and ACT IIs more test of ones knowledge.

        IB and AP classes are an option if you have a decent guidance counselor to point you in the right direction. But lest face it the GenED classes you have to take in college are no more advanced then the classes you took in high school (math and science being excluded depending on the course necessary for your degree)

        I personally had a horrible guidance counselor and a dominant parent with a 9th grade education. Even with that I excelled in grade school. I passed almost all my regents with nearly perfect scores. I also got nearly perfect scores on my SATs, ACTs and ACT IIs. None of that saved me from having to take 5 history classes, 2 English classes, 1 foreign language class and 1 gym class. In one of my English classes we spent the semester reading Shakespeare, I paid to read Shakespeare. Honestly what was the point? The answer is that the class is required and every required class earns the college additional tuition.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Dannielle, what he was gently trying to point out is that you had a grammar error in that sentence that undercuts your implied claim to already know everything you need to. “They’re required to to prove it” is what you should have typed. “Their” is used to indicate possession: “their food”. “They’re” is the contraction that means “they are”.

        Those history classes are supposed to help you learn how to read and write better and to think clearly about specific facts. While anyone can make a mistake like that on occasion, if this type of error is common for you, then you really do need to take these classes, and to work hard in them.

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      • James says:

        I also note several other spelling errors, missing or misplaced punctuation… But I’m not the world’s best typist, either :-)

        The point is, those general education/electives you have to take in college are supposed to be more advanced versions of what you took in high school. If they’re really all that simple for you, many universities will let you take them by examination. (I did this with several courses, including basic English.)

        As for the rest, you have problems with the idea that a university education should expose one to at least the rudiments of a foreign language? Or that one’s use of English could be improved by exposure to good writing? (Though I agree that just reading Shakespeare doesn’t quite cut it: the Arkangel recordings are some of my favorite in-car listening.) Or even that a gym class might contribute to the “mens sana in corpore sano” ideal?

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    • Melissa says:

      I think the “genEd” classes you refer are designed to cover what SHOULD have been learned in high school

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    • Me says:

      When you get a Bachelor’s degree it certifies that you have a certain amount of experience with a liberal arts curriculum. If you didn’t want a Bachelor’s, you could have attended any number of trade schools or community colleges to get a degree or certificate in criminal justice.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I’d like to see the gen ed requirements reduced. Specifically, I’d like to see less of the “Chinese menu” (take two classes from column A, one class from column B, one bowl of steamed rice…) approach and more flexibility.

      This will only happen if professors decide to quit defending their territory (“everyone must take one of these two American History classes, because our budget depends on it!”) and students start demanding it. We’d all be better off if the rule was “everyone must take a history class” rather than “everyone must take *this* history class”.

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  7. Todd says:

    “Who usually has the most influence in these professional organizations? – academics.”

    REALLY? Academic have more influence over professional organizations than the actual professionals who generally fund the organizations. Doubt it.

    “Who stands to financially benefit…” Do universities benefit from extended degree programs? I’m sure they do, but it’s crazy not to concentrate on the prime beneficiaries here–the therapists who’s salaries get a major boost from the massive barriers to entry (and those salaries help fund the professional organizations which lobby for the barriers etc, etc).

    The universities may have a stake in these programs, but it’s an ancillary one.

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  8. Enter your name... says:

    I think that medical school should be extended. Same material, but more sleep. Any student who objects should receive a failing grade for that course about how inadequate sleep affects memory acquisition, retention, and retrieval.

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    • Marci Kiser says:

      Interesting perspectives, but many med schools have actually been experimenting with eliminating the fourth year entirely and substituting extended clerkship time. The fourth year has long been recognized as a “fluff” year that requires very little of students, and some decelerate in their drive and never manage to ramp up again, leading to apathetic, lazy doctors.

      Of course medicine is something of a special case, as it involves extended residencies in addition to its terminal degree.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        There are also schools that go the other direction, and provide an extra year to students—but only if the students can prove that they have a disability (like ADHD). If it can be done for these students, then why not for anyone? Why does ADHD give you the right to a more humane schedule, but having a family, or even just a desire not to be sleep-deprived for several years, doesn’t?

        I’m more interested in spreading out the first three years, when students are feeling overloaded. The fourth year is unimportant to me. If you shoved some of the material into the fourth year, thus balancing it out a bit, then that would probably work for me.

        Similarly, I’d be happy to have residents working 20% fewer hours each week, for 25% more weeks, so that they can get some sleep and have reasonable family lives.

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