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February 18, 2013

ABA Midyear Meeting: Scrapping the Third Year of Law School?

by Sam Ranard

The hot topic at this year’s ABA Midyear Meeting in Dallas was the discussion of cutting law school programs from three years to two years. Proponents of the idea believe that eliminating the third year would decrease the financial burden on law students and in effect decrease the cost of obtaining legal representation. Duke law professor Paul Carrington, who brought the idea forward at the meeting, has been the leading advocate for the one year reduction.

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Graduating from law school with overwhelming debt not only hurts the student’s personal financial situation, but the legal profession as a whole. Illinois State Bar Association President John Thies explained why, “New lawyers have too much debt to work in public interest positions, to make a living providing affordable legal services, to work in rural areas, and to work in small law firms.” He continued, “Debt burdened lawyers are less likely to engage in pro bono work and judging by the anecdotal evidence, they could be more likely to commit ethics violations.”

Courts & Sports’ John M. Phillips believes that cutting programs down to two years would have a negative impact on the legal profession, “The third year is not a waste. You are recieving a doctorate. The amount of lawyers (that would enter the industry) would increase dramatically – with it, more depserate law grads would be seeking to enter an already crowded marketplace where ethics are going down the drain.”

After analyzing the numbers, Jim Chen, a professor and former dean at the University of Louisville School of Law, said law graduates need “an annual salary equal to two-thirds of their law school debt to make law school viable.” Chen recommended a few alternatives to cutting a third year, such as, “requiring law professors to take a one-third pay cut or give up job security.”

Another alternative would be to offer a degree similar to a nurse practitioner in the medical profession. More than a paralegal (nurse) but not quite a lawyer (doctor).

I asked Michael Galdenzi, a second year student at the Florida Coastal School of Law, what he thought. His first questions was, “How would that affect bar passage rates?” The answer, also discussed at the Midyear meeting, was that the ABA would push the Supreme Court to lower the amount of subjects tested on the bar, allowing two years of law school to be sufficient. Yet obviously, this would decrease the general legal knowledge of attorneys entering the field. And this begs the question- Would potential clients be weary of hiring a new attorney with only two years of legal education as opposed to an older attorney who had three years of legal education?

“I think it would just create lawyers who are not as good as the ones we have today.” Galdenzi said, “It would water down the already flooded lawyer market. Completing a three year program means that one has to be absolutely committed to the profession. Comparing this to a doctor works well because doctors have to spend many years in school in order to achieve their title and ability to practice in the field. Barriers to entry into certain fields are good because it keeps people out who are not passionate about the profession.”

It will be interesting to see how the idea of two years of law school pans out. There are a few perks and a few downfalls. In my opinion, a two year law degree is an awful idea. It will oversaturate the job market with drastically under-qualified candidates. Additionally, law school is not just a subject matter education, it is a well-rounded ‘full submersion’ program, and I believe that three years is the minimum amount of time necessary to transform a student from an undergraduate into a practicing attorney. Being an attorney is a serious occupation with an intense amount of responsibility. Legal representation is something that should not be taken lightly. For better or worse, legal representation can alter the entire outcome of a client’s life.  Letting students enter the profession after only two years could result in the suffering of not only the profession, but clients as well.

Yes, the problem remains, going to law school is extremely expensive. The cost alone deters many qualified students from going to law school, and (in some cases) results in students giving up on their dreams. Despite what decisions are made on the two to three year proposal, I am just grateful that the overwhelming cost of a legal education, in a tough job market, is being discussed and given serious consideration on a major platform.

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