Obama calls for two-year JD, schools already working on it

President Barack Obama’s recent challenge for law schools to lop off a year, generated a lot of criticism. But some schools have already launched two-year programs, and New York Law School announced a accelerated program last week that will cost no more than two-thirds of the full tuition. 

Obama, in off the cuff remarks, challenged institutions of higher education, including law schools, to enact changes so students could attain more affordable educations.

“This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it,” Obama said. “I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.”

Obama added that changing legal education from three years to two would allow students to gain more practical experience, while cutting some of the costs associated with a legal education.

“In the third year they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much,” he said. “But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

Obama recalled his experience attending law school and graduating with about $60,000 worth of student loan debt.

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

Although Obama believes law schools could eventually sustain themselves by reforming curriculum, others are skeptical.

But some schools have already taken steps toward two-year legal education programs. New York Law School announced Thursday that it would offer a two-year J.D. honors program beginning in January 2015. The program will cost no more than two-thirds of a traditional J.D. at the school.

 “We’re offering an innovative, accelerated honors J.D. program, requiring an exceptional commitment to year-round, intensive academic work,” Dean Anthony W. Crowell said in a press release. “The program focuses on key growth sectors of the City’s economy: business and financial services; government and public interest; and intellectual property, media, and technology. The Law School will also guarantee postgraduate fellowships to all two-year honor students through partnerships with firms, companies, nonprofits organizations, and government agencies.”

Several other schools now offer two-year programs, but the cost is the same as the three-year programs.

Northeastern University School of Law has offered a co-op program, where students work a year in legal practice, since it was founded. 

“That has been our model all along,” Jeremy Paul, dean of Northeastern University School of Law. “Nearly 70 percent of our graduates who are now in the workforce tell us that it was their co-op experience that set them apart during their job search.”

The law school recently reported an incoming class of 186 students, up from 168 the year before. 

Matthew Bodie, professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, remained unconvinced that condensing legal education would really cut educational expenses for students in the long run. He argued that if law schools reduced their credit hour requirements, they would provide more intensive coursework, requiring additional expenses. He added that “law school tuition is not constrained by credit hours.”

“If someone magically changed the J.D. program at my law school to two years, I wouldn't shrug my shoulders and go, ‘Oh well -- guess we're only two years now!’” he wrote on PrawfsBlawg, a legal education blog. “I would work with my colleagues to figure out how we could make those two years meet the needs of our students -- and pack as much in as possible.”