Opinion: Three Pounds Of Sugar In A Two-Pound Bag
So our Commander in Chief thinks lawyers can be sufficiently educated to practice in two years? Well, maybe he has a point, but, as with everything, the devil is in the details.
It has become fashionable for the cognoscenti to suggest that law schools ought to change their game. A recent American Bar Association report posits that schools are hamstrung both by the ABA accreditation system and the crazy U.S. News rating game. The way the system seems to work is that the ABA sets certain minimum standards which all schools must meet to remain accredited. Accreditation is necessary if a graduate wants to take the bar in many states. It's kind of like the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Few schools (though not all) think it is necessary for their survival.
Once a school manages to obtain the ABA gold seal, it has to struggle to manage the U.S. News variables, which include such things as average LSAT grades for matriculants, bar passage rates, faculty reputation and nine-month, post-grad "J.D. required" employment. For many law school applicants, there are the additional variables of price, location and reputation. The skill set and ability to keep track of multiple variables needed for a successful law school dean seems to be greater than that required for a blackjack card counter.
Several schools are already offering two-year programs. Some cram three years of education into two years. The price is the same, but the selling point is that the student saves one year of living costs. Others, such as the program just announced by New York Law School, reduce the credits necessary to graduate by a third, allowing the students to earn the rest needed for a J.D. in a post-grad year, presumably while they work. While this appears to lower the cost of this education from $150K to $100K, for my money $100K is a lot of money to spend for a two-year degree.
Of course, as the NYLS dean noted on a recent podcast, the school is located near Wall Street, in New York City, and thus, folks should be willing to pay a premium for the proximity to power and influence. He also grumbled that it was unfair that NYLS finishes way, way down the U.S. News list compared to schools such as Alabama, implying that 'Bama grads are just a bunch of hicks. That follows a long history of New York exceptionalism, "If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere."
The same day I saw the NYLS thing, I read a fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Legal Education for All (or More Than Just Lawyers)" which noted a growing market for legal knowledge in business, science and government fields and which suggested that law schools and colleges should meet this demand by offering focused legal skills training in these areas. Brad Saxton, erstwhile dean at Quinnipiac, said the same thing a few years ago. Brad was always ahead of the curve.
I was at a party the other day speaking to an engineer friend. She works in aerospace manufacturing. They produce very technical products, some of which are subject to strict export controls. The company has been dinged once or twice for letting proprietary information out, so they have hired a lot of lawyers in their "compliance" department. Before a part or print can be sent out for manufacturing, legal has to make sure there are no laws or treaties being violated.
Like most folks in manufacturing, everything my friend does is on a deadline, and "just in time." When she moves from design to manufacturing, she does not want to wait a day, a week or a month while legal "studies" the question. She also does not want one of those "on the other hand" answers. Either the part ships or it does not. I bet her employer would gladly pay to give her the skill set to "think like a lawyer" just enough to make that decision.
What a crazy business this is. At the same time we have too many lawyers and too few. A full generation of law school grads are couch surfing in Mom's basement and "working retail" while trying to retire staggering student debt. Yet there is an ever-increasing demand for legal knowledge in very specialized areas. Courts are collapsing under the weight of self-reps while thousands of lawyers go unemployed. Maybe someone can design a curriculum called, "How to Run a Civil Justice System." They could probably make it a two-year course.