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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Law school may become one year shorter

Published: October 4, 2013
Section: News

According to the Princeton Review, 13 percent of Brandeis graduates will attend law school. Law school can be an adventurous and joyous time for students who wish to dedicate their careers to upholding justice. With the prevalence of economic insecurity among college graduates, attending law school can be a method of ensuring a more secure financial future. It can also be a major financial decision, as the cost of obtaining an advanced degree has risen.

A legal career can be prosperous, but it requires a large financial investment. The average debt of a 2013 law school graduate is $140,000, which will likely take years to make a return. Young lawyers often earn six-figure salaries early in their career, but a law degree does not guarantee a position in a highly prosperous law firm. The New York Times reported that only 55 percent of law school graduates take jobs that require a law degree, putting them in a tight financial position after spending more than $100,000 on law school and spending an equally exorbitant amount on undergraduate education.

Difficult economic times have hit law firms; they are hiring 40 percent fewer lawyers than five years ago, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

Additionally, the economic climate has forced law firms to outsource work overseas. They have begun to hire more part-time lawyers as well as those who do not have a law degree, who will therefore expect a lower starting salary.

An option that has gained popularity after being discussed in academic circles for decades is that the duration of conventional law school should be reduced from three to two years. This sentiment has gained popularity with some of the nation’s premier politicians and lawyers.

On Aug. 23, President Barack Obama said, “This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three.”
Due to the exorbitant debt that law school graduates face, many are inclined to search for work in the private sector, although lower paying jobs in government and nonprofits are in high demand.

A common adage in the legal community regarding law school is: “In the first year, they scare you to death, in the second they work you to death, and in the third they bore you to death.” It seems that law students could benefit from losing the final year and condense the most applicable courses and experiences into the first two years.

Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman remarked, “Could I have made it as a lawyer after two years? Probably,” according to The Economist.

New York University held a discussion about shortening law school, which attracted the attention of notable legal educators. Samuel Estreicher, professor at New York University Law School and co-author of “Make Law Schools Earn a Third Year” also believes a change in legal education could be beneficial.

“They’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t even getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student,” said Estreicher according to Inside Higher Ed.

The idea has faced opposition from universities that are not eager to forfeit a third of the law school tuition that they receive. Estreicher noted that many believe law school graduates are underprepared, after a 2007 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was published. Numerous members of the American Bar Association (ABA), the group that currently only accredits schools that have three-year programs, remain resistant to the change.

ABA President James Silkenat supports innovation to reduce costs but believes schools yield “a better product with the full three years,” as reported by The Economist.

The ABA Task Force for the Future of Legal Education has been formed to conduct a review to see what changes should take place, the report for which is set to be released later this year.

The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students also opposes the shortening of law school by stating, “This view treats legal education as a means, not an end unto itself.” In the Inside Higher Ed article, they go on to say, “The third year presently functions to shelter students while they are searching for employment after graduation by providing them with the time to enhance their qualifications by pursuing opportunities like a judicial externship, public interest internships, gaining exposure to interacting with clients through serving at one of their campus’ legal clinics or even by refining their legal writing skills when devoting most of their time to editing a journal.”

Supreme Court Justice and Harvard Law School valedictorian Louis Brandeis described his law school days as “the happiest of [his] life.” Times have changed since Brandeis’ graduation in 1878, and with the changing circumstances will come alterations in ideas and practice.