Why certificate programs are not good for legal education

Several law schools have developed so-called certificate programs, wherein students can receive a separate certificate (beyond their law degrees) for undertaking a certain course of study. After having surveyed many of them, I have concluded that certificates distort the proper incentives for students to diversify their education, seem to be largely a marketing tool for law schools, and allow schools to create the false impression that students are receiving an extra credential when they, in fact, are not. As such, certificates have more than a whiff of hucksterism.

Certificate programs almost invariably have some combination of required and elective courses, and some programs are joint with other departments, e.g., business schools. Most programs have a minimum course credit requirement. Several require students to maintain a minimum GPA, to engage in a clinic or externship, and to write a scholarly paper — often as part of a journal or capstone-style course.

In addition, some programs require students to take credits above that required for the J.D. to demonstrate that the program is above a mere emphasis in coursework, while some other programs explicitly equate the certificate with a major or concentration.

Those in favor of law schools offering certificates suggest that these programs offer the students the ability to formalize a concentration; and, for those programs that require extra coursework, students are offered the opportunity to get formal recognition of the extra learning. In reality, certificates offer an additional credential when none is warranted. Even those programs requiring extra work largely amount to what would be called a major in an undergraduate program. A more honest approach would be to place a notation on the transcripts of students who pursue specialized studies.

Certificate programs have been adopted by law schools as a marketing tool to attract students. Schools advertise to students that upon graduation they could use their certificates to look for employment. To the extent that the programs attract additional students, certificates offer schools suffering financial hardship the opportunity to enhance needed revenue.

The primary problem with certificate programs is that they risk over-incentivizing students to excessively concentrate their legal studies, rather than pursue broad-scope general legal studies. This will necessarily impact the ability of students to maximize the number of bar courses that they take. Given the increased bar failure rates seen recently resulting from weaker admissions standards, schools now more than ever should emphasize the core education necessary for bar passage. Even if they pass the bar, certificated students will likely have less than the ideal breath of coursework.
Moreover, some students in certificate concentrations inevitably will discover well into the process that they want to pursue a career in another field. And students might seek to concentrate in the area du jour, only to find upon graduation that the chosen area has become less advantageous or disfavored in the marketplace — both leaving students in a worse position than had they not pursued any certificate in the first place.

Furthermore, prospective employers might question why, given that a school offers certificates, that some students have not obtained them.  Over time, this will increasingly incentivize more and more students into pursuing certificates. Equally, other schools will seek similar outcomes.  Eventually, certificates will become expected across law schools, which will graduate over-specialized students without providing a competitive advantage.

Certificate programs offer questionable educational and professional benefits to law students and, at best, the opportunity for short-term financial gains to law schools. As such, I believe that both students and schools are better off without them.

Robert Steinbuch is a Professor of Law at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Bowen School of Law and Fulbright Scholar.