Goldilocks and Legal Education

If three years is too long, and two years is too short, maybe two-and-a half years is just right.

Call it the Goldilocks solution to the legal education crisis. And make no mistake, legal education has reached a crisis point. This should not surprise anyone paying attention to the times in which we live. They are as transformative as our transition, a century ago, from a rural agrarian society to an urban industrial one, with all the attendant changes in social and economic norms. Today we are moving from the stability of post-industrial order to a technologically based information age -- and quite hectically so.

For the legal profession to maintain its longstanding prominence in these times, its educational system, developed over a century ago, must modernize as well. From the paucity of traditional entry-level law jobs upon which too many recent law graduates expect to pay off their burdensome student loans to the implosion of revered law firms to the disparity in legal services for the rich and the poor -- challenges abound.

One common suggestion to alleviate these challenges is simply to cut the traditional law school curriculum from three years to two, slashing the time, cost, and commitment involved by one-third. At a recent meeting of the ABA Task Force, charged to think about the future of legal education, a former dean of the Duke University School of Law promoted the two-year model, noting the idea that is more than 40 years old and solves an age-old question: What is the purpose of that darn third year, anyway?

The Chief Judge of the State of New York has raised the question of whether aspiring lawyers should be allowed to take the bar exam after two years of law school, thereby rendering law school's third year irrelevant. Yet there may be good reason to have a third year of law school, including its ability to provide practical training for aspiring lawyers. After all, despite these suggestions, no one has actually bitten the bullet and gone to a two-year model, least of all the accreditors of legal education who continue to regulate against a three-year paradigm.

Perhaps a different approach might make sense. Instead of three years, which some think too long, or two years, which some think too short, maybe we should think about a two-and-a-half year model. The first year, which traditionally has provided students with core knowledge taught in the Socratic Method, along with research and writing skills, could be refashioned into a six-month curriculum. We know a lot more today than we did in the 1880s, when this format was devised, about how students learn and how teaching can be made more effective. We can certainly develop a modern curriculum to teach these topics and skills in six months, especially if we concomitantly devise a program to reinforce and enhance that instruction over the next two years of a student's legal education.

One way we might do this is to borrow a page from Northeastern University School of Law, where I am a member of the faculty and associate dean for experiential education. Northeastern, with an experience-based program that has truly been the future of legal education for the past 45 years, operates a unique brand of legal education in which the second and third years provide students an immersive experience working in law firms, judicial chambers, public interest organizations, and other legal work environments. Our graduates leave with a full year of real-world practice experience, while having completed the same rigorous classroom work as other American law students. This approach to legal education provides students with a realistic understanding of their responsibilities as lawyers and accelerates their professional maturation, making our graduates more ready for employment than peers who have spent their three years of law school inside classrooms.

At Northeastern, we are already redesigning the first year, so I say from experience that condensing the traditional first year curriculum to six months is a realistic possibility. This will shave 15 percent off the time our students will be in school without affecting the immersive approach that is at the core of Northeastern's legal education program. This means our students would be able to complete their professional preparation faster, getting them into work situations more quickly. It means our students would save 15 percent on their tuition bills. It means our faculty would be able to devote 15 percent more time to service, scholarship, or other student services.

It means that we're being responsive to radical changes in our world with a forward-thinking approach, rather than one concentrated on fixing what we didn't like about our experiences as law students. Many of the critics today seem to be doing just that, and it often passes for radical thinking in the legal academy. Within faculties at law schools across the nation, the kinds of ideas proposed here will yield lots of hand wringing. They will cause much introspection and eye rolling. They will require precious waivers from the applicable standards by the accrediting body of the ABA.

I hope they do all those things. Because at least once a century, we should rethink what we're doing. If three years is too long and two years is too short, then maybe two-and-a-half years is just right.