Kay was aware of the recent proposal to allow students to take the New York Bar Exam after two years of law school. The idea that law schools might draw more applicants by reducing potential educational loan debt has piqued the interest of New York's top judge.
Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman stopped short of formally endorsing the idea when it was taken out for a public airing January 18 at New York University School of Law. But he told the more than 100 gathered legal educators, practitioners and judges that the concept deserves serious study.
"I don't think there is anyone on a law school faculty or on the bench who would say, 'This is crazy,' " said Lippman. "[This] proposal challenges all of us involved in legal education to, whatever the length of law school, look at how we can do better."
The concept of doing away with the third year of law school, or making it optional, has been around for decades but has never gone much beyond the discussion phase. NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher recently revisited the topic in an article titled, "The Roosevelt-Cardozo Way: The Case for Bar Eligibility After Two Years of Law School," in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. (The title refers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, both of whom studied law at a time when two years was the norm.)
Estreicher argues that making the third year optional would reduce total tuition costs by one third, while giving law schools incentive to experiment with their third-year curricula. If students don't see value in that final year, they could take the bar exam instead and law schools would surrender the final year of tuition.
"This is not about the fate of the third year; this is about choice," Estreicher said. "Law students shouldn't have the force of the state saying, 'You've got to complete a third year.' Let's not make it a one-size fits all."
Under Estreicher's proposal, students who take the bar exam after two years would not obtain a J.D., but would be eligible for a bar card. (The ABA's law school accreditation standards require students to complete at least 83 credits; Estreicher would establish New York bar exam eligibility upon completion of 60 credits.)
UConn's Levin, who was familiar with the proposal, said offering two-year law school programs might be a useful way to fill the "huge need" of legal services throughout the country among people who can't afford to pay lawyers.
"If you have a program by which people can become lawyers at a lower cost themselves, then they should be able to charge less for their services," Levin said. At the same time, she said, "students in two-year programs might not get enough training to do [all] the things they need to become lawyers."
UConn professor Kay said his view is that a law student can learn all the legal doctrine "they ought to know" in two years. But that would depend on a carefully planned curriculum. "If upon graduation in two years, the new bar admits could then take some time to learn the more practical skills, either in practice or in some other place ... then it would be a perfectly rational system."