... on January 18th the law school of New York University (NYU) held a discussion on a reform that would jolt the system: cutting legal education by a year.
The reason for the event was a recently published article by Samuel Estreicher, a professor at NYU, entitled “The Roosevelt-Cardozo Way: The case for bar eligibility after two years of law school”. Rules in almost every state require an undergraduate degree and then a three-year law degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Mr Estreicher wants students to take the bar before completing their degrees, and, if they pass, letting them practise—as Benjamin Cardozo (a revered judge) and Franklin Roosevelt did before the three-year rule became universal in the early 20th century.
The proposal was surprisingly well received. Many agreed that the third year is useful but not crucial. One panellist, Zachary Fasman, a partner at Paul Hastings, a big law firm, announced that he would happily hire eager and talented lawyers with just two years of law school, though colleagues might not. Others pointed out that the first year of work could be in effect an apprenticeship, during which the rookie would earn less and be billed to clients more cheaply. Law firms already have to train new hires on the job anyway; even three years of education does little to prepare lawyers for actual practice.
Fair enough. But here's what I don't get: Why not make law an undergraduate major? After all, when my alma mater was founded, law was one of the basic subjects taught undergraduates. In Germany today, law is an undergraduate subject:
German legal education consists of a four-year undergraduate degree completed following completion of secondary school and passage of the university entrance exam.
Students then take the First Examination, a comprehensive set of exams that emphasizes academic knowledge of the law.
This is followed by a two-year practical training period (Referendarzeit).
Students then must pass the Second Examination, a comprehensive set of exams that emphasizes practical legal skills. Upon passage, students are entitled to work in any legal profession.
Why should this not be the case in the USA? After all, most business people don't have MBAs. Law schools could offer an undergraduate degree, which would qualify students to take the bar, a Masters degree akin to the MBA for students who want to practice at BigLaw firms, and a SJD, akin to a PhD, for would be legal academics.
The vast majority of lawyers would graduate with far less debt. In addition, a law undergraduate major might well be useful to a slew of students who never intend to practice law.
Of course, this is not a novel proposal. John McGinnis and Russell Mangas advanced this very same proposal in the WSJ. They argue that:
An undergraduate legal degree could be readily designed. A student could devote half of his course work to the major, which would allow him to approximate two years of legal study. There is substantial agreement in the profession that two years are enough to understand the essentials of the law—both the basics of our ancient common law and the innovations of our modern world. A one-year apprenticeship after graduation would allow young lawyers to replace the superfluous third year of law school with practical training. ...
The idea of learning law as an undergraduate discipline is hardly untested. Great Britain, for instance, educates lawyers in college, not graduate school. These college-educated lawyers appear to provide legal services on par with those of their American colleagues.
Go read the whole thing.
I'm genuinely puzzled as to why this idea doesn't have more support. It would be better for students. It would integrate law schools into the larger university, which would be good for faculty. It just makes sense, which is probably the problem.