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)?

Stan Q

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.


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)



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?


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



"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.


"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.

Enter your name...

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.


I think this really overlooks the obvious. The problem is not whether law school takes three years, or two, or sixteen. The problem at base is just the simple economics of supply and demand. There are too many lawyers already, so comparatively few new graduates find jobs. The oversupply drives down starting salary offers, so the baby lawyers (who went into law school expecting their degree would earn them big, easy bucks) can't pay their loans.

If you wanted a real solution, it would be to limit the number of entrants to law schools.

Mariana Mota

For me it's so difficult to imagine a degree with less than 4 years. Here in Brazil the courses are around 4 years, but Law and Medicine take 5 years. If my economics course took only 2 years I would already have graduated (I'm at my thirth year).

The funny thing is that even if it's 5 years of Law school, there is no shortage of Law students. Law is the most popular course because one of the safest ways to make money is to become a government employee, and a lot of positions require a Law degree.(Also, here Law is a undergraduate degree)

Also, how many contact hours the students have in a year? I know that at England is around 100 (Someone correct me if I am wrong!), but here is at least 800.


I think it makes sense. Schools might respond by raising prices for those two years so they approach the price it would have been for three years, but students then get a year earlier to go into the work force and pay off student loans.

The rub is that there needs to be a strong enough work force, which continues to be in a slump and which the President has pivoted back to numerous times without much to show for it.