Scholars React to President’s Call to Shrink Law School from Three Years to Two

We earlier discussed (and agreed with) President Obama’s suggestion that law schools cut their length of study to two years from the current three years. At Above the Law, Elie Mystal urged Obama to turn his words into meaningful actions, by having Education Department accreditation regulators open the door to two-year law-school programs, which are currently impeded by federally approved law-school accreditors. (“The accreditation standards of the American Bar Association’s section on legal education require law schools to have an academic program that typically lasts three years. The ABA has resisted changing those standards.”) Such law school accreditors currently use their accreditation requirements to require law schools to operate more expensively, such as offering unnecessary library collections, and teacher tenure for faculty who are no longer productive.

Two of America’s most frequently quoted law professors, Stephen Bainbridge and Eugene Volokh, suggested additional ways of reducing the length and expense education for lawyers. Professor Bainbridge urged that law be made an undergraduate degree. Professor Volokh suggested allowing people to go to law school after studying at an undergraduate school for just two years, rather than the current four years needed to get a bachelor’s degree.

These proposals are good, but they do not go far enough: people should be able to take the bar exam without any prior law school attendance at all. This would benefit the public and improve access to legal services for ordinary people and small businesses. Moreover, the growth of law schools fueled by unnecessary accreditation requirements can itself be harmful to the economy. As we noted earlier, federal income-based repayment programs effectively encourage prolonged law school study, and rapid increases in tuition, by wiping out all student loan debt for certain favored borrowers beyond a certain amount of indebtedness, at taxpayer expense, a system that law schools like Georgetown have figured out how to game at an enormous potential cost to taxpayers of well over $100,000 per student. The Washington Post earlier explained “how Georgetown Law gets Uncle Sam to pay” some of “its students’ bills” — such as those who plan to work for the government or a progressive legal defense fund for ten years — at a cost averaging $158,888 over three years, by taking advantage of perverse incentives in a federal student-loan program. The Obama administration has proposed making these programs even more costly to taxpayers through ill-conceived changes to the tax code and federal student-loan programs.