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Discussion continues about 2-year law schools

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 8, 2013

When President Barack Obama recently weighed in on the topic of two-year law schools, he joined a national debate on the question that has sparked discussions among law school deans and attorneys and an American Bar Association task force.

At the end of August, in a speech at Binghamton (New York) University, he suggested that law school need not be three years long.

“This is probably controversial to say,” said the president. “But what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it. 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…. but that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

Elizabeth A. Reilly, interim dean of The University of Akron School of Law, said that statement is the crux of the matter.

“The statement was really about how to lower the costs of going to law school,” said Reilly.

The president’s brief statement followed on the heels of an American Bar Association report generated by the organization’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which released a working paper on Oct. 1 which suggested changing the view of law schools from educational institutions to something approximating technical schools.

Although it did not make a specific recommendation to develop two-year law schools, the paper did open the door specifically to revisiting this requirement, on a number of grounds. The entire paper can be accessed on the American Bar Association website.

Obama’s statement was one of a plethora of reactions to that report and to other writings on the topic.

The question of reducing legal education from three years to two years of formal, classroom training has been floating around legal circles for a little while. This publication carried an extended interview with Brian Tamanaha of Washington University in St. Louis, which advocated for such a change in his book Failing Law Schools. Other critics have also weighed in on both sides of the topic, which has been covered in this publication in the past.

The rest of the president’s statement points to the difficulties associated with changing such a long-standing tradition:

“Now,” said Obama, “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. Now, if that’s true at a graduate level, there are probably some things that we could do at the undergraduate level as well.”

Reilly comes down firmly on the side of keeping formal legal education at a three-year requirement, but she also knows that some flexibility can be built into that system.

For instance, the real requirement is for a certain number of classroom credits, which can be more easily taken over three years, but which could be taken in less time. The University of Dayton School of Law has recently allowed students to take three years’ worth of credits in two years, for instance, and a number of other school around the country do the same.

But, under these kinds of plans, the number of credit hours remain the same, and are all connected to current ABA requirements, which allow a student to take up to 20 percent of course credits in any one semester.

Reilly said that although taking all law school credits in five semesters, “can be a considerable reduction in cost, this is really accelerated and doesn’t give the students an opportunity for an internship. A paid internship is a major factor in education and employability for law students.”

In several states, including Vermont and California, applicants for the bar examination can still write on to the bar if they complete an apprenticeship.

The real question, though, said Reilly, is: what the hiring attorneys are looking for in a law school graduate? The real issue, as Obama pointed out, is what exactly a law student does can do in a third year that is a necessary, irreplaceable requirement for practicing law.

Akron attorney F. Daniel Balmert, who is the managing partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease LLC, for one, thinks that that third year may not be necessary under all circumstances.

“This is not a new concept. Northwestern has had this for some time,” said Balmert. His basic opinion on the topic is that, “so long as law schools are able to fully train the students to fully and thoughtfully respond to the 11 core subjects of the bar exam, I don’t have a deep concern with a two-year program.”

At the same time, Balmert also thinks that a third year after a two-year legal education would be spent in an apprenticeship with an attorney as another requisite for practice.

Akron Bar Association President Stephen Funk, an attorney at Roetzel & Andress, does not look on the concept as favorably as Balmert does.

Having read the task force report, Funk said that it is, “not necessarily recommending reducing the amount of time required to obtain a law school education.”

There are a number of potential changes to legal education contained in the report, said Funk, but, “my perception of this issue is not about whatever the decision ultimately is. All schools—graduate and undergraduate--are always looking at issues, and always trying to improve themselves. We should let the process play out, and let the people directly involved in these decisions do their jobs.”

Primarily, he said, “we have to make sure that those three years are put to the most effective use.”

Reilly said that, “this is a complex issue. The law firms want more real world experience (in recent graduates).”

It is in the third year that law students participate in internships and other activities designed to propagate real-world skills. “This makes the third year more important,” she said.

“There may be law firms who prefer to train lawyers themselves, but a lot of firms don’t want to do that. They want the law schools to do that.”

But many underlying issues related with legal education remain, at the very least as laid out in the ABA report referred to above. The University of Akron School of Law is working with a number of reforms in numerous areas, said Reilly.

But that is all within the context of a three-year education. ”Students need more than two years to learn what they need to know to practice in the profession,” said Reilly. “Two years does not give students the time to do it right, and to apply (those skills).

Nevertheless, she said, “There may be other ways to do it. And we are watching.”