The legal profession has taken a hit over the past few years. When the economy takes a big downturn, law firms are as affected as anyone. Hiring freezes, lay-offs, firms closing their doors. Naturally, the people hardest hit are the newbie lawyers, fresh out of law school.
For a couple of years now, I've been hearing a lot of friends and acquaintances bemoaning the fact that they ever went to law school. They're deep in law school debt but unable to find those high-paying jobs that were supposed to be the key to paying those school loans. I've seen more than a few Facebook posts urging people not to go to law school. (Though they all agree that my only choice was to go to law school and become a lawyer. They just don't think most people should follow that path.)
So now with law school enrollment down, law schools are looking for ways to beat out other schools for the most students. Today I saw two articles with interesting proposals for changing the way people become lawyers. Law school is typically a 3 year program, coming after a 4 year undergraduate degree. The University of Kansas has announced a new program that will enable an incoming undergraduate student to cut a year out and get both degrees in only 6 years. Then the New York Times proposed allowing law students to take the bar exam after only 2 years. If they pass, then no more law school. If they don't, no problem, just go back for that 3rd year.
These are interesting ideas that might work for some students. Goodness knows, anyone who isn't a millionaire would love to save a full year of law school tuition. I would generally agree that the stuff that is on the bar exam tends to be the stuff you study your first two years of law school, while the 3rd year involves a lot more elective study. Personally, I loved law school and would have very much missed out on that 3rd year. Some of my favorite classes were those elective seminars on more diverse topics. But I know a lot of people would have been just fine skipping that year and getting straight to the practice of law. My concern, though, is that we already don't spend enough time in law school teaching people how to actually be lawyers. Cutting that year of school out means it's the clinics and the internships that will go. People will be so busy taking courses necessary for the bar exam, they won't even get to a trial advocacy class.
The KU plan likewise might well work for some students but probably wouldn't have been ideal for me. While I was destined to be a criminal defense attorney and knew that for decades, I wasn't ready to a) attend a giant state university for undergrad or b) go straight from undergrad to law school. I took several years off between college and law school and was a much better law student for it.
I'm also a little worried about how my beloved Wisconsin will fare if other law schools or states start cutting out some years of school as long as people can pass the bar. One of the nicest perks of attending law school in Wisconsin is that you don't have to take the bar. The state still has a bar exam, but people who graduate from either the UW or Marquette University (in Milwaukee) and who satisfy the specific bar requirements do not have to take that exam. I wonder how many Wisconsin law students would be willing to take that damn test if it meant they could get out of the last year of law school. Of course, idiots like me who took jobs outside of the state still had to take a bar exam anyway, so it's not like we Badgers all went through school bound and determined never to take a bar.
Bottom line is I'm glad I graduated from law school a decade ago and am well-established in my career. I'd hate to be trying to break in now. I'm also glad I'm not a professor, clinical instructor, or law school administrator whose livelihood depends on figuring out how to attract as many law students as possible. I'll just watch all this unfold, watch as more proposals like this are made, from the safety of my law-license-having, good-job-holding ivory tower.