Legal Community Weighs In On Two- v. Three-Year Law School Debate

September 11, 2013

Law schoolIn an Aug. 23 speech at Binghamton University, President Obama said he “believe[d] that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.”

That third year of law school, of course, contributes greatly to the expense of a J.D. That matters to large law firms because education expenses are a major pressure point for new associates, and therefore a driver of demand for high salaries.

With his comment, the president – who is a lawyer himself – fanned the embers of a discussion that, until now, had not really gotten much attention, sending it into full flame mode. Three weeks after his speech, people are still talking about his two- v. three-year remark rather than the other topics he touched on during the same speech, including civil rights and financial industry reform.

Enough time has passed since Obama made his comment that some influential legal minds have had a chance to weigh in on what they think of Obama’s two-year idea. Here is a look at what a few of them had to say:

Jack Boger, dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law, is in favor of a two-year law program. He told UNC’s campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, that easing law students’ financial burden may help reshape law firm culture for the better: less student debt means less demand for salary means lower rates for clients.

But for Philip Schrag, a professor at Georgetown Law, the idea of a two-year J.D. program has “surface appeal” only. His concern is that if law school were condensed to two years, students would only have basic understandings of important legal concepts and not the bespoke legal knowledge their clients need. Of particular concern to him are courses in finer points, like ethics and negotiation.

Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath seems to think, at this point, the discussion is moot. Sure, students would benefit, she told CNBC, but law school administrators would have less revenue, fewer student loans would be needed and fewer professors would have jobs. All in all, she thinks it isn’t in the best interest of the “legal establishment” to downgrade from three years to two.