Saving Education Costs for Law Students — 2+3 Instead of 4+3 or 4+2?

I blogged below about why I’m skeptical of claims that law school should be shortened to two years; I think there’s a lot for business lawyers to learn, and it’s hard to fit all that into two years, even entirely excluding any of the classes that people sometimes mock (whether rightly or wrongly) as irrelevant.

But if we see legal education not as a 3-year program, but as a 4-plus-3-year program, and ask how we can reduce that, maybe the answer isn’t 4-plus-2 (4 years of college plus 2 of law school) but 2-plus-3 (2 years of general education, focused on prelaw, plus 3 years of legal education). I haven’t studied the subject at all closely, but this seems to me worth considering. Indeed, as I understand it, this is roughly the foundation of legal education in some other Western countries, though it’s also often supplemented by a formal apprenticeship. (I should also note that some law schools do offer 3-plus-3 programs, though I haven’t seen them heavily promoted; to study the subject seriously, we’d want to know how those programs have fared.)

My sense is that most law students and lawyers generally use relatively little of their undergraduate educations in law school or in practice. To be sure, undergraduate education is often touted as teaching general critical thinking, but my sense is that most such education doesn’t really do a great job on that score. And while some foundation of non-law knowledge is helpful for law students and lawyers, two years tailored to a prelaw education — focused on writing, economics, some history, and some mathematics (especially statistics) — would probably provide that foundation at least as well as, or better than, the average four-year degree that law students bring to law school.

To be sure, this would require students to focus on law from the time they enter college (say, at 18), rather than leaving them with the opportunity to explore other possible topics throughout college. But if students realize after the first two years that they’d rather do something else, their general education classes will still serve them fairly well in most other fields. And even if they change their plans after they’re done with the law school portion, they will have spent only one year more in school than they would have had they gotten, say, a standard economics, political science, or sociology degree. To be sure, there will still be some lost investment of time there, especially if they then realize they want to shift to a topic that requires a radically different base of classes (such as medicine, engineering, or science). But those students who know they want that flexibility from the outset could still take a standard 4-year undergraduate program followed by the 3-year law school program.

This will also mean that the younger graduating lawyers will tend to be 22 or 23 rather than 24 or 25 for the younger graduating lawyers of today. We might thus wonder how mature those students will be. But my sense is that the maturity expected of a lawyer is a function less of chronological age and more of the number of years spent working rather than in school. So I doubt that this two year difference will have a huge effect on lawyer quality, especially when the lawyer is a junior lawyer working under senior lawyers’ supervision. And the countervailing benefit — two fewer years of people (whether students, parents, or taxpayers) having to pay for higher education, and two more years of graduates being paid for their work — should, I think, be pretty substantial.

Finally, many students will of course prefer two extra years of fun college life — whether fun because of partying or fun because of actual learning of interesting subjects even when those subjects don’t end up being directly applicable to their careers — over two extra years of working as a lawyer. The question is whether this fun is worth the tens of thousands of extra dollars in tuition, and tens of thousands of lost dollars in salary.