Law schools: Third year is too crucial to lose

Obama suggested schools cut a year to lower student costs.

Law schools: Third year is too crucial to lose

Roy Aker

After President Barack Obama’s recent criticisms of U.S. law schools, many law students and faculty members spoke out in defense of their current systems.

Obama suggested in a speech last month that law schools should cut program length by a year to lower costs for students, the Associated Press reported. But at the University of Minnesota and nationwide, some students and administrators say two years isn’t enough time.

“My sense is that it’s probably not a good approach,” said University Law School Dean David Wippman, adding that making the transition to a two-year system would be extremely difficult.

Wippman said that he doesn’t believe Obama’s proposal would save as much money for students as proponents say, and that it could also lower bar exam scores.

Tasha Everman, assistant dean and director of career services at the University of Nebraska College of Law, said she thinks Obama’s comment took the discussion “a little too far.”

“We can’t have lawyers out there who are less educated,” she said.

Some schools, including Northwestern University, have adopted an accelerated two-year law program, but tuition costs at Northwestern remain the same as for its three-year program.

Third-year University law student Morwenna Borden said she recognizes the appeal of students saving on tuition but believes a two-year system would be a “pretty terrible idea.”

She said the third year is essential for students to figure out what area of law they want to specialize in.

“I would feel woefully unprepared to enter the job market with only two years of law school,” she said.

Even before the debate started on the length of law school, programs across the country have been under scrutiny in recent years as tuition has risen and unemployment rates of newly minted lawyers have gone up.

Borden said she thinks there’s a “saturation” in today’s new lawyer market.

“It’s terrifying to have it be well-known that I’m about to enter a field where there’s going to be incredibly stiff competition for a smaller number of jobs,” she said.

Adjusting expectations

At the University, law school applications decreased for the 2013-14 school year, a trend Wippman said is normal after the surge of applicants following the recession.

“In some respect,” Borden said, “the cost associated with going to law school keeps the numbers down to a manageable graduating class.”

In June, a University Board of Regents vote increased tuition for the 2013-14 academic year by about 9 percent for first-year resident law students, bringing their tuition up to nearly $40,000 per year. Second- and third-year law students saw smaller increases.

“We’re certainly weeding out very able students just given the cost factor,” Borden said.

Although Wippman said he acknowledges the hurdles the law industry has faced in recent years, he said job prospects are increasing — though slowly — for new lawyers in Minnesota. The state’s job market for law students is “friendlier” than in other states, he said.

“If I were a prospective student today, the question is really not so much ‘What is the job market today,’” he said, “but ‘What will the job market be like three years from now?’

But even though a law degree may have once been the default choice for many students, he said today’s law students need to think hard about why they want to be lawyers.

“I think what’s happening is that students are adjusting their expectations of what law school means to them,” he said. “You should have a good reason.”

 

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.