Law School Electives and the Two-Year vs. Three-Year Debate

Whether the J.D. degree should take two years or three years is a recurring question in legal education. But a lot of the debate ignores one of the more unusual aspects of the J.D. degree: For the most part, the second and third years consist only of electives. The first year features a mandatory curriculum, with perhaps one elective in the spring. But the remaining years consist mostly or entirely of electives, with perhaps one mandatory course (professional responsibility). Subject to scheduling constraints and the occasional difficulty getting into a class that may be oversubscribed, students can pretty much take any courses they want. At most schools, the upper-level course offerings are plentiful and wide-ranging. So after that first year, the rest is a “choose your own adventure” book.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, it largely counters the argument that law school needs to last for three years because students pick up essential skills and knowledge in their third year. We let students graduate from law school without having taken any particular classes beyond the 1L curriculum and P.R. If the third year were so essential, wouldn’t we require students to take specific classes to pick up those critical skills? The reality that schools happily graduate students regardless of what electives they selected suggests that we don’t really have a specific set of skills in mind.

Second, the elective nature of the second and third year means that students have some control over the usefulness of their third year. I agree with Eugene’s recent suggestion that there is no shortage of really important classes to take to fill up a student’s 2L and 3L years. When I learn that a student is finding her third-year useless, my first thought is to ask, “What classes are you taking? And are they different from what you have taken before?” My guess is that a good number of students who find their third year useless are taking electives that largely replicate earlier electives. A large curriculum often translates into overlapping classes, and students who don’t push themselves to take really different classes can be bored in part because they’ve encountered the same or similar material before.

Putting the two points together, my own view is that it should be possible to get a JD in two years but schools should be free to offer a three-year program, too. Some schools will opt for the two-year option, others the three-year option, and some will offer both. Students who see value in taking the full range of upper-level classes can do so. And schools that offer three-year programs may want to consider introducing at least some upper-level course requirements to ensure that their graduates really do have the essential background that proponents of the longer degree program advertise.