The American Bar Association and law schools should reconsider the outdated structure of three years of law school and the bar exam. First, law school is far too theoretical and lacks training for practical, employable skills. Second, it is very costly, and each semester puts students in greater insurmountable debt. Third, the completion of becoming an attorney more commonly takes four years, and considering the skill set needed to begin such a career, four years is too long. The ABA should require law schools to graduate students after two years in an unaccelerated program, eliminating the third year completely.
The Lack of Practical Learning
The typical legal career makes very little use of the outdated knowledge obtained during law school. When we begin our careers, we have to learn entirely new knowledge and skills.
There is merit to the argument of benefiting from learning “critical and analytical thinking skills”; however, students learn these skills during four years of undergraduate education, which costs between $40,000 and $120,000.
Two years of law school is plenty of time to take the standard 1L courses, numerous electives, participate in moot court and law review, and learn additional critical and analytical thinking skills. Beyond the second year, there is a significant drop in value in reward versus time spent. The law of diminishing returns reveals that beyond the fourth semester of law school, time spent in pedagogical leanring yields little if any results.
In his article “The Two-Year Law Degree: A Great Idea That Will Never Come to Be,” Matt Barnum writes how many law school elective courses are time-fillers and money-pits: “My former law school offered a potpourri of utterly fascinating and utterly useless classes: Art Law; Greek Tragedy and Philosophy; Religion, Law and Politics. You get the idea.”
In 2013, in a speech at Binghamton University, Former President Barack Obama stated,
Law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years… The third year they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.
In “Many Attorneys Don’t Really Practice Much Law,” Jordan Rothman writes how the majority of legal work involves non-legal skills, such as notetaking, information entry, and negotiation skills, none of which requires substantive knowledge from seemingly endless pedagogical courses.
Each semester of law school is very costly. A cost-benefit analysis of the third year supports the argument for its removal. The benefit of a third year is that students take electives in courses they mostly won’t ever use. This is insubstantial compared to the average cost of one year, which is $40,000. To remove the third year would save students millions of dollars in the aggregate.
Let’s say John Doe is below average salary-wise and makes $70,000 a year as an attorney. John has $120,000 in student loan debt. After taxes at 22 percent, John makes $54,600. After living costs (rent, food, insurance, car payment, miscellaneous payments, which amount to $3,000 a month), his net income is $18,600. If John saved absolutely nothing and put his entire net amount toward his loans, it would take him 8.6 years to pay off his debt (160,000/18,600=8.6). If John started law school at the age of 25 and was barred at 28, he would be 37 years old by the time he has zero student debt, but he would also have absolutely zero dollars in savings. Law school puts hundreds of thousands of Americans in an atrocious and unhealthy financial model. If John Doe could save $53,000 instead because the third year is eliminated, he could pay his loans in five years instead of 8.6 years, which is a massive benefit.
The six-figure law jobs are hard to find and harder to obtain. And such statistics are grossly inflated by response data with an inherent bias. Only successful lawyers respond to this data, which implies two things: people who earn JDs but never pass the bar, and attorneys who leave the profession, are excluded.
It’s Actually Four Years
Most students pass the bar that first time, but it still takes several months to obtain one’s results, interview, and land a job. If you need to retake the exam, you might not have a job for another year.
People with master’s degrees are equally if not more effective skill-wise upon graduation than JD holders, who have minimal practical skills (how many JDs know how to produce motions for state or federal court?). Law students should spend their third year taking the bar exam and state-required exams, and interning in the real-world, instead of being forced to complete super costly, energy-draining, endless “busy work” that makes law schools rich, and students miserable.
Lawyers would be better served with a two-year master’s degree and a full year less in debt. The ABA should strongly reconsider this for the interests of hundreds of thousands of future law students.