Law School: Too Long?

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Law school is really expensive. After three years of law school you’ll likely have a mountain of debt—which means about $3,500 in monthly loan payments for 10 years.

Take a very popular refrain you’ll hear from employers, “Law school doesn’t get you ready for actual practice.” Add in the fact that big law firms and federal judges are willing to offer you full-time employment after only your first year. And finally add that you’ll often end up teaching yourself the law for your classes. You come to wonder why law school is three years long? I would rather spend the years working for free than have to shell out for law school.

There’s a counterargument here that goes something like this: Well, if you didn’t pay so much money for your education, law firms — which are privy to a lot of insider information and compete hard for work with each other — couldn’t trust you enough with their clients to hire you. You need some skin in the game.

But don’t we have white-collar crime statutes for that? What about our already expensive undergrad degrees — are these not skin enough? Why don’t we exclude graduates with full rides or whose parents foot the bill? What about personal reputation as skin in the game?

It’s certainly true that legal employers rely on law schools to vet potential, worthwhile hires. Almost every interview you will have at law school will be just for personality fit. Rarely do firms ask substantive questions, and when they do, such questions can be worked through fairly easily within the 10 to 15 minutes allotted for such questioning. If you come from a school the employer is targeting, and you meet their grade threshold, they will assume fairly quickly that you’re worth hiring (if you’re not a jerk).

But is it worth shifting the cost of vetting candidates onto law students, and at the rates students are now paying for tuition? In a world without law schools, a longer, more rigorous hiring process would be more expensive for legal employers, but plenty of other employers bear such costs — think software or consulting firms — and those industries are doing just fine.

There has got to be a cheaper signaling device for potential attorneys. A prime candidate is simply a shorter road to the JD. President Obama thinks law school should be two years long. I think that’s too long still, but it’s a start. A favorite professor of mine at Columbia thinks law school should be a three-week course.

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