LAW school applications and enrollments are dropping at a precipitous rate and everyone from President Obama to the American Bar Association has taken note.
Recently, Obama recommended a two-year law school program. American Bar Association President James Silkenat has said that, “Legal education in the United States is the best in the world, but it must continue to evolve to match the rapid changes that are taking place in legal practice.”
At Gonzaga University Law School, this restructuring of legal education has meant smaller incoming classes. Faced with the choice of admitting students without the characteristics that have been strongly correlated with post-graduation success in order to fill seats, or shrinking the class size, Gonzaga has chosen to continue the focus on the career success of our graduates.
This focus requires that we, and all responsible law schools, must innovate to serve students, the lawyers we graduate and the people who need legal services.
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Even if law schools wanted to, “evolving” into a shortened program like the one President Obama suggested would not be possible under the current structure. Given the American Bar Association’s requirement that each student must undergo no fewer than 58,000 minutes of instruction time, it would be impossible to do this in two normal academic years.
The American Bar Association’s draft report on the future of legal education suggests that this requirement be “relaxed,” but that change could take years. The draft further highlights that “affording new lawyers with opportunities for mentoring and further practical training must be fashioned.”
I have been in legal education for more than 25 years and I do not think it is possible for someone to learn the theory and doctrine of the law and also develop the necessary practical skills in two traditional academic years — a fact the ABA’s report highlights in calling for a new academic model.
There is another type of two-year program, however, which could be developed by adjusting the traditional academic calendar. Use the calendar that the rest of the world uses.
Students would attend law school for 24 consecutive months and then be eligible to sit for the bar exam in July in time for the hiring cycle of most employers. I describe this as “same education, less vacation.” The students who opt for a two-year program would get a legal education that feels more like a full-time job.
Gonzaga Law has a history of embracing innovation and, starting with the 2014-15 academic year, will offer this alternate 24-month program alongside the traditional 36-month program.
Years ago, our program was one of the first to require two years of legal writing. We were one of the first to require 15 credits of skills training and up to 15 hours of experiential learning. Gonzaga Law was also one of the first to require public service from each student to instill the sense that pursuing justice through pro bono work is the responsibility of every Gonzaga lawyer.
This optional two-year program will not be less expensive for our students in terms of tuition. It will, however, save them the lost opportunity costs and living expenses of a third year.
This kind of change will require a cultural shift for legal educators. This is a shift that the Gonzaga Law faculty is making to provide the same high-quality education offered in the traditional program.
It is the responsibility of law schools to find solutions for the challenges of legal education. While it would be irresponsible to cut the amount of education students receive, it would be equally imprudent to fail to adapt to the changing needs of the legal industry and law students.
This new program is a risk, but it’s one that I believe will pay significant dividends for both students and the legal profession in our nation.
Jane Korn is dean of Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane.