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)?


This is a solution that would have unintended consequences. While the 3rd year of law school is mostly not necessary for the practice of law, (honestly the second year isn't either), it has to retain some academic credentials which would be hard to do in two year cycles.

Aside from that, you would be looking at even more lawyers freshly minted every year if law school was cheaper and more accessible, which would only exacerbate the problem we currently have which is that freshly minted lawyers are crushed with a debt that they can't get jobs good enough to pay off in a reasonable amount of time. Decreasing the cost of becoming a lawyer is likely going to increase competition for jobs, which has potential of pushing wages down etc.

Plus, you have the whole business / lawschool side of things. Law professors would suddenly be looking at the chopping block as well assuming we needed 2/3 as many of them. Such a drastic change on that side could have huge unintended consequences. I think there was something in Kahneman's book about resistance to reform generally negating a majority of the benefits that the reform provides.

Something needs to be done about the practice of law, and the cost of degrees, but there needs to be a lot more thought put into it. In reality, the price of law degrees is related to the price of all degrees. i.e. it's an outgrowth of many things including the availability of government backed (good) loan money. If we can solve the problems with undergrad education prices and demand that will go a long way to helping law schools as well.



Shorter: Library science.

Craig Rojek

Somehow, I doubt that changing the requirements for a JD would alter the market for the degree very much (meaning that the cost to the putative lawyer wouldn't change much). If we really want to change the cost of college and graduate programs, especially professional programs, wouldn't it make more sense to allow for more substitutes? I guess I'm thinking of Milton Friedman and Reuben Kessel on medicine, saying that a more robust market would allow other paths, for example, apprenticeship of some sort, to the designation of MD, and break the influence of that strongest of all unions, the AMA. But that could apply to almost any, or all, college and professional programs, couldn't it? Looking for an aged apprentice, Dr. Levitt? He's probably forgotten, since it was almost 38 years ago, but Sam Peltzman once told me I had an aptitude for economics. ;-)


Personally, I think the barriers of entry to law school is too low. Consider the ridiculously high unemployment rates for recent law school graduates. Law schools are supplying more lawyers than the market wants, so they probably should figure out ways to supply less of them. It's not rocket science.

Another way of measuring the same thing is comparing the academic criteria for entering a T14 Law school as compared to a Tier 1 or Tier 2 economics PhD program. You'll note that the latter is far more stringent.

Caleb b

For perspective: University of Oklahoma Law School - Class of 2010

Oklahoma economy faired pretty well in the great recession, in large part to oil & gas.

The majority of students spent 6-12 months post graduation searching for jobs. The median starting salary was around $45k/yr and the average 3yr cost ranged from $75k-in-state to $120k-out-of-state. (that is tuition, books, room & board.

One full year after graduation, about 1/4th of the class was either unemployed or working as an intern. Of the top 10% of the class, several took public defender and DA jobs, which paid around $40k. One guy killed himself bc the navy gave him a job, but pulled it later. He was living with his parents 14 months after graduation.

John Rambo

This makes me wonder what can be done to make government less expensive!!! Maybe Obama should start thinking about that. We all would save money if he would reduce the cost of redundant and inefficient government agencies.

Ray Gaetano

Long ago, when I was in college, it was possible to go to law school, and medical school after 2 years of college. This knocks 2 years off the length of time. The time in law school would be 2 or 3 years. Madical school 4 years plus internships for specialties.
So for those who knew for sure, they took the required courses, then went on to finish their professional courses. Maybe today it would take 3 years for the required courses. It would still cost a year less.
Also, there is a lot about not getting a job after law school. Well 40 years ago lots of people were not hired because of their ethnicity. They opened up shop. And back then, and probably now the median income of a lawyer was under the median of say a librarian. They did have higher highs, but lower lows too, and not too many had the high pay.
Is it perhaps no insurance for law expenses that keeps pay down? And the required numbers down. The issue is not so much 3 years as oversupply and high cost of the education.



In the UK, Australia, and many commonwealth or ex-commonwealth countries, Law is a 4 or 5 year degree that you straight after school, and is a bachelors degree. And a lot of law graduates don't become lawyers either but get other jobs as Law is a fairly useful degree to have. But then to practice law you have to do a masters for a year.

Medicine too, is a 5 or 6 year degree straight out of school, although in Australia this is changing, so that medicine is a post graduate degree, so you have to do a bachelors degree in 3-5 years first, then do medicine, in 4 years.

I think both options have their advantages and disadvantages. In medicine, I would guess a lot of people who did med straight after school did it because they got the marks and were pushed into it, not because they wanted to. Also the maturity of 19 year olds in med school is also questionable!


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.


A few decades ago, South Africa's law graduates had to complete a undergraduate degree prior to enrolling for a law degree. This was later changed to allow Black people access into the legal profession and for the same reasons advanced by Obama to decrease the costs of qualifying as a lawyer, which at the time made sense, considering the political and socio-economic conditions of the time. More recently, there has been an outcry by many people in the profession that the quality of law graduates leaves much to be desired with universities standing accused of churning law graduates out just to obtain more funding from government. So the solution proposed is to increase the length of a law degree. Amidst all this, the question on costs on students has all but been forgotten.