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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Law School in Two Years...

Over the past year, there has been a significant amount of news coverage over two-year JD programs. TIME Magazine ran an article on Northwestern Law School’s newly launched, two-year J.D. program over the summer ("Fast-Tracking Law School"), while the topic has been touched on throughout the legal blogosphere (Leiter, Paul Caron's Tax Blog,, the Volokh Conspiracy, Legal Theory Blog, the WSJ.com blog, etc.). Rick Garnett had a thoughtful post and discussion on the topic here on PrawfsBlawg. Although most of the flurry of news occurred in June and July, I thought I would write a quick post.

What I find interesting about the discussion is some consternation over whether a two-year JD program can work. As legal educators around the country reevaluate and redesign law school curricula -- spurred by the 2007 Carnegie Report and other recent publications -- some have asked, “Is it possible to obtain all the knowledge and skills necessary to be a successful lawyer in just two years?”

A preliminary point: although Northwestern has begun some exciting changes at its school, a two year program is not new. Dayton has had a successful two-year program since 2005. Southwestern has had a successful two-year program since 1974. Southwestern's program was the first ABA-approved accelerated program in the nation established with the aid of the largest federal grant awarded at that time to any law school by the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. I understand at various times that other schools too have had two-years programs and its not unheard of for students to graduate at an accelerated pace (I believe Michigan State may have had a two-year program at one time, Iowa had a two year + summer program and, if I remember correctly, Justice Lewis Powell graduated from Washington & Lee in two years, as one prominent example).

But on to the issue. On the one hand, the preliminary point answers the question -- we know two-year programs work and provide students with the skills they need because schools like Dayton and Southwestern have been doing it for years. But I agree that it's not entirely clear pedagogically the benefits of simply squeezing three years of the traditional curriculum into two. As schools (presumably there may be others) that consider following Southwestern's, Dayton's, and now Northwestern's lead by exploring establishing two-year programs they need to be careful that they are not simply creating an "accelerated" experience.

A two-year program, if done well, almost certainly requires significant curricular changes. Southwestern's success with its two-year program has been to emphasize conceptual learning and simulation training. The program relies heavily on simulated client files and hypothetical problems as teaching tools. The program integrates theory and practice and benefits from small classes. Northwestern too is not just simply creating an accelerated program. It intends to provide its students with integrated business and management training in an attempt to give its graduates a step up when they begin their careers (see this interesting discussion at the Empirical Legal Studies blog). A detailed description of how two-year programs can work and other alternatives to traditional legal education appears in some older law review articles (e.g., 35 Journal of Legal Education 97 (1985) and 68 A.B.A. J. 558 (1982)).

On balance, two-year programs seem to fit a unique niche for certain kinds of students (similar to evening programs for students who are employed full-time, and part-time day programs designed for students with child or elder care responsibilities). So I would be interested. Are there other schools that are looking into creating two-year programs? Or part-time programs designed for parents with child-care responsibilities? Or other programs that serve unique niches?

Posted by Austen Parrish on October 28, 2008 at 01:23 AM | Permalink


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It is important to note that upon embarking on our law school education, we are constantly told that only our first year grades matter. For most people this is true. They do fall recruitment at the beginning of second year, take a job that summer that will in all likelihood will be the starting point of their career. For those people, second and third year grades are fairly unimportant, barring complete failure. For these students, their third year is a breeze, they take easy classes, use up their pass/fails and take the MPRE.

Importance of grades does vary, however. There are those of us going into public interest, where your grades do matter because you are constantly looking for another internship, externship or with great luck, a paying job. However, most of these positions are taken with two caveats: "Can you work for free and we most likely won't be able to offer you a position at the end of your term." For these students, those grades do matter, but that does not answer the question of whether the third year of academic study is necessary.

In reality, the third year for everyone is just spent trying to make it out of school and hopefully get a job out of it. Is it really necessary? No, most of what we need to know is taught on the job. But, it does expose us to classes and subject areas we would not otherwise have access to and it is therefore beneficial for pure socratic learning value.

Posted by: Concerned law student | Oct 28, 2008 1:04:10 PM

Tshaka, I agree. I was not saying it's inevitable that ever two-year program will work, but rather that they can work and can serve an important niche.

Posted by: ap | Oct 28, 2008 11:34:16 AM

In this post you suggest that two year programs work because two schools have had them for "years." Ignoring the fact that Dayton's program has existed only long enough to graduate, at best, two classes, hardly sufficient time to say that it is successful; according to you, nearly as many schools have abandoned two year programs (Iowa and Michigan State) as currently have them (Southwestern, Northwestern and Dayton). Of those schools that have them, only one (Southwestern) has existed long enough to suggest that its current existence is a function of its success rather than institutional inertia. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the contention that two year programs, as a general rule, work.

Posted by: Tshaka | Oct 28, 2008 10:28:51 AM

Ours doesn't have a program, I just did it. Well, almost. I was a summer start in 2007, and as of May 2009 I will have three credits to go, which I'll finish by July. I think one population we tend to neglect is people who don't plan to practice. For us, it doesn't really matter if two year programs can create a lawyer. We are here to learn about law, but we don't need a lot of those classes everyone else feels they do - evidence, tax, crim pro, bankruptcy, corps, forget it. I took the first-year curriculum and the required Con Law II and PR and then just take all international law classes, along with a lot of seminars. This works perfectly for me as a future human rights activist. For the bar exam, I'll just study on my own with materials. It isn't essential that I know these things as life-long skills.

Posted by: Judith | Oct 28, 2008 7:49:36 AM

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