The President has spoken:

This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it.  (Laughter.)  I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years — because by the third year — in the first two years young people are learning in the classroom.  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.

Now, the question is can law schools maintain quality and keep good professors and sustain themselves without that third year.  My suspicion is, is that if they thought creatively about it, they probably could.

Well then, don’t I feel foolish.  Here I’ve been, pondering what I perceived to be the complex interconnections among law school, tuition, employment, structural unemployment, competency, debt, ethics…well, the list goes on for miles. I’ve been harping on the involvement of the practicing bar in the creation of our future colleagues and their place within the profession, all for naught.

Two years. That’s the answer. The President said so, and he used to teach law school, you know, so he knows what he’s talking about.

And if I feel foolish, imagine how Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence Mitchell must feel, seeing how he just started this whole branding campaign to make his the Practice Ready™ law school, only to be shot down in mere days by no less important a voice than the President’s. Wow, that must suck.  Mitchell was all ready to make his students do a semester of externship or clinics, because after a whole, long, hard-working semester, a law student certainly knows all there is to be practice ready.

But Matt Brodie at PrawfsBlawg already takes issue with the President, raising three issues with the notion that two years of law school is the answer.  His first point raises a rather cynical issue: what makes anyone think that if law schools cut down their length from three to two years, they would charge any less?

The price law students are willing to pay for law school has proven itself to be surprisingly insensitive. If the price of admission is $150,000, then anyone inclined to attend despite warnings that there is no gold ring on the other side will pay that princely sum for two years as well as three. They just get one year less school for their money, which is half a year less than Dean Mitchell planned to charge for.

After all, it’s not like buildings cost less to run and maintain. And it’s not like scholars are going to teach for three hours a week for nothing. Law schools cost money, and somebody has to pay for it. As long as the fed will finance it, who cares whether a credit costs $1,000 or $10,000. Won’t there be a Ferrari waiting for you at the door on the way out? It says so in the law school brochure.

Brodie’s second point is that cutting law school to two years not only fails to address the structural unemployment problem, but exacerbates it.  This is a no-brainer, as it dumps an extra class of new lawyers into the market, though it only happens once, and then returns to the old days of the usual unemployment.

His third point is what one would expect from a defender of the status quo:

The President proposed lopping a third off of legal education because “by the third year — in the first two years young people are learning in the classroom.  The third year they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much.”  That’s not much of a pedagogical theory — I guess he doesn’t like clinics — but then again, there’s not much pedagogy to a lot of these theories.

What he appears to be saying is that the length and content of law school ought to be based on what we think students need to know in order to become lawyers rather than some off-the-cuff guesswork.

I believe that with increasing legal complexity, most of us would likely need more education, rather than less, to be properly prepared.  Of course, it is always the job of law schools to provide the necessary education at a sustainable price.  But schools can provide a three-year legal education at a sustainable price.

Silly as it seems, President Obama’s remarks are likely to cause a substantial push toward reducing law school from three to two years, both because they comport with what some are saying already and because, well, he’s the President of the United States of America, and carries some influence.

Resist.  It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong, or that Brodie’s points, which aren’t a whole lot deeper than Obama’s, win the debate, but there are so many other problems and issues that are interwoven into the problems confronting the legal profession that these magic-bullet solutions, easily digested and guaranteed not to make anyone’s head ache just thinking about them, don’t cut it.

The law school problem is only a “law school problem” to students and lawprofs. It’s a piece of the problem with the profession for the rest of us.  Biglaw is imploding. Small law is sucking wind. The groundlings are buying LegalZoom forms to see how badly they can destroy their lives on their own, while indigent defenders are covering 679 felonies a year.

And kids come out of law school with the price of a small house on their backs, no job in sight, left with the option of sitting on the couch in mommy’s basement or opening up shop just like the marketeers taught them.  And law deans tell them they’re “practice ready” after three months of pupilage, so  they can get right on the panel after they take an oath to faithfully follow the marketing gods and try a murder case.

Much as I hate to say it, Brodie has a very important point when he speaks of pedagogical choices being made for pedagogical reasons. We all want solutions to problems, and particularly to whatever problem affects us most. But almost every magic-bullet solution solves one problem at the expense of another, and almost all the solutions that are good for lawyers come at the expense of clients.

I know it hurts to think hard about things, but it has to be done. Choices need to be made, and they need to be made for the right reasons, not just because they’re quick and easy.

And now we have Obamalaw. Because things weren’t bad enough before.

H/T Alex Bunin and Dan Hull


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