Obama Joins Calls for Shorter Law School; Bad Idea?

By William Peacock, Esq. on August 27, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Let's start with this assumption: the system is broken. It's a good assumption. Law school takes three years. For decades, the joke has been, "third year, they bore you to death." For students at most schools, the joke is reality, the third year is spent sleeping through class and desperately seeking post-grad employment, and maybe, just maybe, doing clinical work. It also means another year of tuition, books, and living expenses.

Late last week, President Barack Obama, a Harvard Law grad and former University of Chicago law professor, echoed the calls of many to shorten law school, citing cost to students and the diminished returns of a third year of classroom work as compelling reasons to consider the idea, reports The Wall Street Journal. Of course, such an idea also carries significant drawbacks.

Less Electives

Perhaps the least significant issue, mentioned by a professor to the Journal, is the decreased opportunity for electives, especially when accounting for subjects tested by the bar exam. Schools would be forced to pack the remaining two years with "core" subjects.

That begs two questions: first, do students need to take every bar subject? By the time of graduation, most students need refreshers anyway. Bar prep courses serve that function, and cover subjects that were missed.

Second, do law students really need electives? We go to law school to learn how to "think like a lawyer." Sports Law was an incredibly interesting and fun course, but its application to the real world has so far been minimal. Unless of course, you want to be an agent.

If the choice is $50,000 in student loans or Sports Law, most students would pick the former.

Higher Tuition or More Students?

One less year means one year less revenue. Are schools going to dramatically cut expenses, salaries, and professors, raise tuition even further, or just graduate more classes of students?

Considering their past behavior, tuition hikes aren't out of the realm of possibility, though there may be a limit to how much students will pay for a degree that, at present, carries no guarantees of gainful employment.

That leaves admitting more students as another probable outcome. Instead of churning out tens of thousands of lawyers on three-year rotations, schools will churn out more lawyers, at a faster rate. This assumes an elastic demand for classroom seats, and with the realities of the job market, that demand may not be there. (Then again, pre-law naiveté can lead to bad decisions.)

In the end, we'd probably see both more students admitted and higher tuition.

What's the Actual Problem?

Is the problem really the cost of a third year?

Schools have gotten greedy. Tuition has skyrocketed, enrollment has gradually increased, and more schools have opened, while demand for graduates has plummeted. Cutting the third year only addresses one-third of the problem, and may not be a solution tailored to the entirety of the situation.

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