Laws Cool: Shorten the Paper Chase?

The nice part of being a second-term President is you never have to worry about being elected again. The tired, lame refrains of the birthers and impeachers aside, a bulletproof President Obama is using part of his second term to lead in reducing the staggering cost of a law school education. Enter the bully pulpit.

We’re not talking about Texas Gov. Rick “Oops!” Perry (R) looking to reduce the cost (and quality) of a college education “The Walmart Way.”  As we recall, Gov. Goodhair barely made it out of Texas A & M with the class dunce cap. We’ve seen his transcripts.

090908_obama_schoolsThree years of law school is not for the faint of heart. Just because that’s the way it’s been done for a century or so doesn’t mean it has been carved in stone. I’m still waiting for anyone to voluntarily admit they are a first year law student. There’s a unique way of thinking and processing information imparted in law school. It also tends to illustrate a new and heightened definition to academic rigor. Three years of waterboarding without the water. (See: torture.) Again, not for the faint of heart.

So in wades the President, himself a Harvard Law-educated honors graduate lawyer and previously a Constitutional Law professor, to float a way to dramatically reduce the staggering cost of a professional graduate degree. His gravitas should make us consider a way to cut costs without reducing quality. It’s a thought worthy of sober review and evaluation.

Just because one has a new six-figure Juris Doctor diploma does not mean one is ready to practice law. There are the state bar examinations as a final hurtle. Nobody is advocating waiving that rite of passage. Only a portion of freshly-minted JDs make it past the bar exam on the first try. Perhaps a study of how bar exam results compare between traditional three year law students and more streamlined students is in order. We ought to be brave and bold enough to try.

With the third year reserved for an internship or clerking, law school grads would have the opportunity to gain real-world legal practice experience sooner, and at lower cost. There’s the flexibility to also have a separate track for specialization usually reserved in post-JD LL.M. programs.

Co-operative education, linking classroom to working world realities has been with us in many forms over decades in a number of disciplines.Why not the law? Until we really try it out, we’ll never know.

An increasing number of influential practitioners are advocating the proposed change in how we educate our lawyers. Traditionalists might hate the idea, but they’re not the ones generally hauling around a six-figure student loan debt around their necks.

It might not work. We might just end up with the LL. M. being the “new” JD. After all, American medicine doesn’t turn out General Practitioners any more; everyone is a “specialist” of some sort or another. They get to bill out at higher rates. Another overpriced profession. Or, perhaps the response might resemble a line from Mel Brooks’ classic Young Frankenstein: “It could work!”

Let’s at least thoroughly explore the possibilities to try and make graduate education more affordable.  The rising costs of our existing system is costly and unsustainable.