Will the legal establishment allow a two-year law school?
When President Barack Obama said last week that law schools would "probably be wise" to move away from three-year programs to two, he gave lip service to the stakeholders.
"The question is can law schools maintain quality and keep good professors and sustain themselves without that third year?" the Harvard Law graduate asked in remarks at New York's Binghamton University. "My suspicion is that if they thought creatively about it, they probably could."
Easy for him to say.
"Who will fight like crazy to prevent two-year schools from being able to accredit J.D.s? Just about everybody in the established order," said Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath, who has written about the troubles facing law schools.
Under a two-year system, McGrath sees lost revenue for administrators, poorer job prospects for professors and fewer student loans for banks.
But who will benefit? "The students, obviously, whose expenses drop by a third," said McGrath, who also authored the recent book "The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business."
Elie Mystal, editor with legal news website Above the Law, argued on CNBC's "Power Lunch" that "cutting law school off at a two-year experience is the best and easiest way to drop the cost without damaging the educational value the school is providing."
David Lat, founder of Above the Law, cited the adage known to all law students—that in the first year they scare you to death, in the second they work you to death, and in the third bore they you to death. Some students make the most of the third year by focusing on a specialization such as contract law. Future professors (and presidents) may get on a law review, while aspiring litigators may target moot court. But that still leaves a large portion of third-year law students unfocused and in the bored-to-death camp.
"Instead of more classroom instruction and more theory in the third year, you could actually be working somewhere, at a law firm, at a government agency, learning about how the law works in the real world," Lat said. "Instead of paying tuition to the law school, you might actually be getting paid yourself, like a medical resident or a paralegal."
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A two-year system would only produce more attorneys, something lawyers and nonlawyers alike are alarmed about, saying there's already a glut. The New York Times reported in April that just 55 percent of law school graduates end up taking jobs that require their law degree.
But McGrath suggested that two-year lawyers, encumbered with less debt, may have lower financial aspirations and could work in underserved communities or for employers that are less flush.
The path to change
Dan Rodriguez, dean of the Northwestern University School of Law, agrees that the current system cannot be rigidly preserved. "I certainly favor experimentation," he said, adding that schools will feel constrained as long as the American Bar Association is "breathing down their necks."
The ABA is the professional regulating body of lawyers in the U.S. that provides law school accreditation. An ABA representative wrote in an email, "The ABA Task Force (for the Future of Legal Education) has a number of stakeholders who are carefully and thoughtfully reviewing the issues."
McGrath sees change growing out of desperation—"schools that have nothing to lose, those who have to change or go broke."
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She said progress may be marked by the evolution of a "Master's of Law" degree, indicating advanced legal training without reaching the level of the law school graduate degree, the J.D. Such a person may be qualified to do many of the kinds of things lawyers are hired to do today, and be authorized to serve the public directly, unlike a paralegal.
Paul McGreal, dean at the University of Dayton School of Law, said change may evolve when the ABA shows some flexibility.
"There are difficult issues of pedagogy, curriculum and finance here," he said, adding that solutions could arise from "a more robust waiver program to allow law schools to find solutions through experimentation."
Rodriguez said that "law schools are going to have to change their economic paradigm in order to deal with with the crushing problem of student debt."
McGrath said she will believe it when she sees it, however, adding, "Everyone has a vested interest in the status quo."
—By CNBC's Matt Twomey. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Twomey.