Patrick Rochelle: The two-year degree saves law students money, but doesn't help job prospects

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Patrick Rochelle

For some students, law school was once considered a safety net. It was something to do after graduation if you didn’t know what to do with the rest of your life.

But it’s no longer such a solid bet.

The central problem is that there are simply too many graduates for too few jobs and, as a result, applicant pools are shrinking. GW Law School professor Thomas Morgan told me “law firms are cutting back on their hires right out of law school. Corporate clients in particular have resisted paying the rates firms want to charge for inexperienced graduates.”

The American Bar Association released a study in 2011 saying that nine months after receiving a diploma, only 55 percent of law school graduates found full-time jobs that required passing the bar exam.

Granted at GW, 81 percent of law students were able to find employment upon graduation that required they pass the bar exam, The Hatchet reported in August 2012.

It’s clear the legal profession is desperate for some solutions, and one idea that has been gaining traction in New York is to allow students to take the bar exam after only two years of school. Some students would be able to bypass the third year of law school altogether, saving themselves time and money.

And the average law student graduated $125,000 in debt in 2011, according to a Jan. 30 New York Times report. And as a result, the number of applicants to law schools across the country has declined by 20 percent from this same time last year.

A two-year degree would save students money, but it wouldn’t be a solution to the high unemployment problems facing law graduates. While the goal is to help alleviate the burdens of law school tuition, the downside is that in the long run, it could add unforeseen expenses to both the institution and its students.

Critics of the traditional model argue that the third year of school is not always necessary since the second- and third-year curricula so often overlap.

And while this might be true, the two-year degree is not a solution because it leaves institutions to find a way to make up for lost revenue. With students paying less tuition, universities might have no other choice than to cut the budget of the school or accept more students to their incoming classes.

Slashing budgets to make up for lost revenue would mean that this proposal might actually be a detriment to the quality of education and programming schools can provide to their students.

And at a time when thousands of graduates are struggling to find jobs, this proposal would likely draw more students into an already crowded legal market. It wouldn’t guarantee that upon graduation this new wave of students is able to find work. It would only enable students to start looking for a job sooner than they would at a traditional program.

“We already have an oversupply [of students]. This might make it worse. We are now basically graduating two graduates for every one legal position," Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the book “Failing Law Schools,” told me. "The two-year proposal doesn’t change that.”

Law schools have been forced to respond accordingly to the changes within the profession in the past few years. For GW, this has meant a number of proposals, such as specially tailoring the curriculum more to students’ interests and creating new programs like the Inns of Court and Pathways to Practice, which help students ease their way into the legal market.

And while these are all noble attempts to alleviate the problems graduates face, it’s unlikely that a two-year degree would put students to work.

Patrick Rochelle, a senior majoring in English, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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