I hear that some people think that lawyers should cut the time they spend in law school by a third. In America, only lawyers could be treated this way. No one suggests that doctors be 33% less well educated before they start cutting people and prescribing potentially lethal medicine. No one says of the military, “Let’s call it ‘Really Basic Training,’ cut it down to four weeks, and then let the new recruits figure out details like reloading when they’re out on the front lines.”
But lawyers? Hey, they’re more like commodities than professionals nowadays anyways — why not try to find ways to crank them out faster? Two recent articles — one in The Economist and the other in The ABA Journal — report that some influential people are suggesting that there’s no real reason for U.S. law students to attend law school for more than two years. After two years, have them take the bar exam, and if they pass they can start apprenticing in law firms. They will graduate with less debt and have more career options (like government and non-profits) to consider.
This, by the way, is the way that lawyers think. Normal people, when faced with the facts that (A) there are too many people going to law school and (B) they are spending way too much money on it, will conclude either (a) law schools should accept fewer applicants or (b) law schools should lower tuition. Lawyers, instead, conclude (z) diminish the amount of education each student receives! Maybe that would solve the tuition debt problem, but it would exacerbate the “too many law grads” problem, because every law school would have to accept 50% more new students every year just to remain as busy as they were before the two-year plan was brought up. Maybe this is just the first step. Maybe the ultimate goal is to eventually get every U.S. citizen to go to law school for two weeks and then take the bar exam. A land where everyone knew just enough to know how to sue everyone else, but not enough to know how to do it well or wisely. It makes the NRA’s dreams of universal concealed-carry pale in comparison.
Now, I counsel LL.M. students, many of whom got their law degrees in other countries, so I have mixed feelings about the two-year-law-school diet. A lot of countries don’t even have separate law schools; students who simply major in law when getting their bachelor’s degrees can go straight into practice from college. So I know it’s not crazy to suggest that three years of post-bachelor’s schooling is unnecessary. On the other hand, my students, U.S. and foreign-trained alike, have all signed up for an additional year of schooling because they believe it will benefit their careers, and most of them are right. In fact, getting an LL.M. degree is a lot like that third year in law school — a time when students can simply focus on elective courses that will prepare them for specific areas of practice. Isn’t that the best part of school? The part where you get to choose and explore?
Whether it’s law school, college, some other professional or educational venue, or even just learning on the job, that period of exploration that comes after you have learned enough to make sense of your field is perhaps the part most crucial to figuring out fulfillment. It would be a mistake for law schools to deprive their students of that opportunity. It would also be a mistake for any of us to overlook or deny themselves that same kind of opportunity throughout the various stages of our careers. If you are no longer learning how to do your job right, then you should be learning how to make the most — either where you are or where you could be — of all the stuff you learned getting yourself to that point. Never settle for merely mastering a discipline, a body of knowledge, or the demands of a new position. You may learn a lot in doing so, but your real education comes from what you can discover once you have that mastery under your belt.