Northwestern University School of Law, here in Chicago, has just announced that it will be offering students a chance to get a law degree in two years instead of the traditional three. Let’s look at the history of this. Back in the Good Old Days, you didn’t have to go to law school at all to become a lawyer. Nor did you have to go to college first. You apprenticed as clerk to a practicing lawyer. That’s how Abe Lincoln started out. There were law schools, but they were for the upper classes. There are still places where you can get admitted to the Bar without a law degree today, though it’s pretty hard to arrange, and not many people do it. A Chicago attorney who passed away only a couple of years ago was the last person I know of personally who did it. He was pretty good at what he did, too.

Then came the American Bar Association, which in its wisdom decided about 100 years ago that the profession was too open to the riffraff. So it encouraged state bar communities to require a law degree, or at least make that the preferred track into the profession. Back then, getting a law degree took—gasp!—two years. Back then, BTW, many law schools did not require a college degree for entrance.

Somewhere around the same time, law schools started permitting night study for people who had to work while getting their degrees. That, reasonably enough, took three years.

I’m not sure precisely when the third/fourth year of law school was added, though I think some schools were still holding out as late as the 1960s, but the point of it was to enable the student to take more specialized courses. As a practical matter, the last year of law school has, ever since, been regarded with barely-tolerant amusement by most students. The axiom among law students is, “The first year, they scare you to death. The second year, they work you to death. The third year, they bore you to death.” I’m not sure what useful purpose the last year ever served. But I’m really skeptical about the rationale now being used for dropping it.

Well, not exactly dropping it. What they’re actually doing is compressing it. Pretty much what I did with my own legal education, actually—I went to night school, while working full-time. Normally that should have taken four years. I did it in three and a half, by taking classes through the summers. But Northwestern is proposing that day students, who would normally finish in three years, take classes through the summers and “mini-classes” between semesters, thereby finishing in two years. They are also shifting the emphasis in course requirements, to teach skills such as “accounting, teamwork, and project management,” and modeling the degree program more closely on the business school pattern. Presumably that means that some other courses are being dropped, but nobody is saying which ones. All of this is explicitly designed to make the future employers of the next generation of lawyers happy with their more practical, business-oriented approach.

Which makes me really nervous. If all NU wanted was to shorten the time required to get a law degree, I wouldn’t be all that bothered by their dropping or shortening the third/fourth year. But making the students work harder and with less time between terms, and come out looking more like MBAs, scares the flippen daylights out of me.

Law has been for a long time the last refuge of the liberally educated professional, the last place where you can get props for knowing things outside your specialty. Roughly half of my law school class had advanced degrees in something else before starting law school. The point of being a lawyer is to be able to think critically and analytically, to balance competing interests and ethical imperatives, to be able to break down a situation into ponderable parts and weigh them against the applicable law. [And, not incidentally, to learn how to spell habeas corpus.]

The lawyer’s job is to be, not a Minuteman, but a Wait-a-Minuteman, somebody who can tell the client, “Not so fast. You can’t do what you want to do here.” Clients don’t much like that function of the legal professions, and would vastly prefer to hire MBA-like robots who will simply map out the shortest apparently legal distance between here and where the client wants to go, and “make it happen.” We have been witnessing, over the last ten or fifteen years, a large number of accountants and MBAs getting indicted, and often imprisoned, for taking just this approach. A few lawyers have already gone this way as well. Does NU really want to send an entire generation of new lawyers in the same direction?

What’s the rush, anyway? I can understand people who try to finish college in three years—it can actually save money, if planned properly. The NU administration claims not to have decided whether its two-year program will cost the same $42,000 total tuition as the current program, but I would bet it will. It’s hard to imagine that faculty members drafted to teach the new summer and mini-courses won’t demand some kind of extra pay for doing it. The proposed program would require entering students to have spent at least two years working in some other field, which many of them would anyway. But the fact is, we’re all living longer these days, and lawyers never retire. [One of my colleagues, who was still practicing last I heard, just celebrated his 100th birthday. Another, who I know is still practicing, was admitted to the Bar the year I was born.] So starting one’s professional career a year earlier or later is pretty insignificant in the long run. If anything, the legal profession needs to slow down a bit more, and get back into the habit of thinking things through before making a recommendation. And one of the recommendations most in need of thinking through, obviously, is Northwestern’s two-year program.

Jane Grey



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