“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
-Attributed to Derek Bok, former dean of Harvard Law School
At a public meeting in Greenberg Lounge two weeks ago, I saw Professor Samuel Estreicher, who teaches employment law and appellate advocacy here at NYU, defend his position that students should be allowed to sit for the bar after two years of law school and to have the option of walking with a certificate, rather than a J.D. Everyone in attendance—judges, law school deans, professors, partners, and economists—seemed at least intrigued by the possibility of a two-year program. Despite a few moments of tension, the dialogue was engaged, thoughtful, and tactful; persuasive arguments were laid out on both sides.
Though the details would, of course, need to be worked out, many of the participants seemed to find at least some merit in the proposal—including Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman ’68 of the New York Court of Appeals.
And yet, I am still not persuaded that shortening law schools to two years—without a fundamental restructuring of how lawyers are trained—would do anything significant but lessen the quality of legal work performed by new graduates As a 2L, I know that I’m not yet prepared to handle the pressures of real clients’ issues. With just the fundamentals of legal research and writing and a handful of doctrinal classes under my belt, I’m not sure that in six months I could provide “competent” representation, as contemplated in the ABA’s Model Rules. Undoubtedly, there are individuals here at NYU, and elsewhere, who could do so. But for many law students, I argue two years is simply not enough—even though some of them may think it is.
“Well,” some might say, “you wouldn’t be ready after your third year either!” This may be true to an extent. But the notion that one is simply either competent or incompetent seems mistaken in this context; rather, perhaps competence should be measured on a sliding scale. Taking another two semesters of doctrinal courses—as well as getting valuable clinical experience—would leave someone (like me) more prepared for practice than had he or she not done so. I’m afraid that doing away with these two semesters of general exposure to the law would have a dramatic qualitative cost with respect to work performed by new graduates. And, in turn, the profession would suffer as a whole.
Professor Estreicher’s proposal has many sensible justifications (which I encourage you to read in his essay). But eliminating a year from the curriculum and, in effect, producing less educated lawyers is not the way to do it, unless we fundamentally restructure the way legal education is provided. For example, a two-year legal curriculum, followed by a mandatory two years of paid “clinical residency” for graduates who take the two-year option (whether in firms, non-profits, government, or elsewhere, at a reduced rate) would, I think, be a more prudent solution—without the consequence of lowering the public’s confidence in our profession.
Nonetheless, it is very encouraging to see that solutions are being offered and considered, especially at the highest levels of the bar and the academy. Seriously considering our options—even those proposing a radical change—is the only way we will get out of this quandary, and as Chief Judge Lippman said during the meeting, “We want to hear more.”
Related resources for those interested in more information on the panel discussion, the Estreicher proposal, and connected issues can be found at the following links:
“Law Schools’ Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs Are Cut” (New York Times, 1/31/13)
“Make Law Schools Earn a Third Year” by Daniel B. Rodriguez and Samuel Estreicher (New York Times, 1/17/13)