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Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Shortening Law School
I suppose if I tried to pitch any law school with the idea that law school should be shorter, the idea wouldn't be warmly embraced. Most law school programs are three years, and that's for a very distinct reason. The American Bar Association (ABA)-behemoth of accrediting bodies-requires three-year-programs for accreditation.

As a general rule, the first two years of law school are devoted almost exclusively to classroom learning. Many of the broadest principles of law---Constitutional, Criminal, Civil Procedure and the like, are taught in the first year. Traditionally, students would seek internships in the summer between their second and third years. The purpose? To give them the practical training that law school lacked.

By the third year, then, students have largely completed the classroom work necessary to pass state bar examinations, and may also have a summer's worth of on-the-job training. The third year is filled with elective courses. Interesting, perhaps, but not essential. Third year-grueling though it may still be-is a bit of a free skate compared to the first two.

By cutting law school to two years, students could save a fortune on tuition-an important concern in today's legal market. They could spend the "third" year apprenticing at an actual firm, getting the experience needed to actually practice law.

The problem here, of course, is the loss to universities. Many have already scrambled to add clinical courses to their curriculum-an ideal way to sweeten the deal for law students worried about job prospects, while hanging on to the third year tuition.

My idea isn't off the wall, or unique. President Obama drew attention last summer for making the very suggestion. It could be a salve for many law schools who are struggling with declining enrollment.

It would take an unlikely alignment of the stars for this to happen, but it's a wave of change that would change the shape of legal study and its job market-two things desperately in need of a structural makeover.


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