A number of law schools are trying to push the boundaries of conventional legal education in other ways.

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A quicker, cheaper law degree — which got a major vote of confidence when President Barack Obama, a lawyer and former law professor, unexpectedly endorsed it in August 2013 — has been widely promoted as an ideal way to slash growing student debt and give beginning lawyers a leg up in a difficult job market.

But one of the most visible experiments, the two-year law degree, has foundered so far. The only elite school to adopt it, the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, last fall ended its accelerated two-year juris doctor program after it failed to attract enough applicants.

“We thought this program was the holy grail alternative to bring in students who might otherwise not have considered law school,” says Daniel B. Rodriguez, the Northwestern law school dean.

The Northwestern program was a bellwether for innovation in legal education at a time when law school has lost some of its luster and applications have declined — except to top-tier schools — as prospective students see higher tuition costs, but fewer legal job opportunities.

Only two years ago, Rodriguez and Samuel Estreicher, a professor at the New York University School of Law, publicly praised the streamlined degree as “a big step in the right direction” to rapidly train lawyers, ease student financial burdens and encourage innovation in third-year law curriculum.

Other two-year options

Despite the closure, a handful of other law schools are still successfully offering a two-year degree option. They include Brooklyn Law School, University of Kansas, University of Dayton School of Law and Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. But such degrees largely do not reflect retooling of the law school curriculum because accreditation rules require the same number of course credits to graduate. The degree in a truncated time frame typically costs the same as the three-year version.

Even so, a number of law schools — confronting the reality of plunging applicants  — are trying to push the boundaries of conventional legal education in other ways.

In December, for example, the Loyola University Chicago School of Law said that, starting this fall, it plans to offer a weekend juris doctorate program that will allow part-time students to earn a degree using both physical classes and distance learning. Other law schools also are experimenting with mixing online learning and in-class sessions to attract law degree seekers who want more flexibility.

Employers demand changes

A speedy degree, however, is not the only issue facing law schools. Employers are demanding that law graduates have the skills to work as lawyers from their first day of employment.

In response, some schools are overhauling their third-year offerings. The University of California Hastings College of the Law began a program called Lawyers for America in 2011 that lops off the last year of academic classes. Instead, students gain hands-on experience by spending their final year in places like a district attorney’s office, where they learn tasks like taking depositions and filing legal motions.

Law schools have been cautious about too much tinkering, unwilling to disrupt a proven earnings model and to avoid the wrath of alumni reacting to any diminution of the school’s brand.

“We are trying to change a system that’s been the same for more than 80 years,” says Blake D. Morant, dean of George Washington University Law School and current head of the Association of American Law Schools. “At the same time, employers — law firms, corporate counsel and federal agencies — are telling us that they no longer want to train these lawyers.

“They want lawyers with the critical-thinking skills they learn in law school, but who also are ready to hit the ground running.”

Northwestern, for example, tailored its program to appeal to slightly older students with workplace experience, but its pipeline of students was unexpectedly narrowed by economic and regulatory forces, says Rodriguez, Northwestern’s dean.

The law school has labored to reach its goal of 30 students per class each year, a typical number for many such two-year programs. Students with solid job experience like John A. Prinzivalli, 29, of Chicago, found the program ideal.

“It was a good step for me after spending five years in an economic consulting firm,” says Prinzivalli, who is set to graduate in May from the two-year program. “I wanted to be with like-minded peers yet be able to quickly rejoin the workforce.”

He has a job offer from a major law firm, where he interned last summer, so he is saving a year’s living expenses and also gaining a year’s salary with an earlier job start date. The accelerated program “is a chance to show ambition and hard work,” he said, but “it’s also a lot of work in a compressed time frame.”

Another stumbling block for law school experimentation can be American Bar Association accreditation rules. As a university-affiliated law school, Northwestern was allowed to recruit a percentage of high-achieving undergraduates, who might have otherwise gone to another law school, to go directly to its law school, using results from tests like Graduate Record Exam (GRE) rather than the more traditional Law School Admissions Test.

Increasingly, higher education institutions are opting out of relying on standardized testing in evaluating applicants, but most of the ABA’s 200-plus accredited law schools use the test as a significant marker for admission decisions.

The rule change was criticized by some stand-alone law schools as a shortcut that helped university-affiliated law schools corral good students. About two dozen independent schools pressed the accrediting body, the ABA Section on Legal Education, to rescind the new rule. Last summer, citing too many law school requests for variances to its rule, the ABA reversed itself effective in 2017, so that currently enrolled students can complete their degrees.

Even with the overturned rule, Barry Currier, the ABA section’s managing director for accreditation and legal education, said law schools could continue to recruit high-performing undergraduates who have completed three-fourths of their education to participate in “3 + 3” accelerated programs. The six-year program allows qualified rising seniors to enter law school and complete both a bachelor’s and law degree in less time than the typical seven years.

Such streamlined programs have been more popular with the legal academy. So far about 30 schools, including Northwestern, Fordham University School of Law and Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, have adopted such programs.

Schools committed to the two-year law degree, like Brooklyn Law School, say there is an extra layer of scrutiny for those applying to the program, which allows students to complete their studies in 24 months. Students must undergo a formal interview, either in person or via Skype, to “make sure that students understand it is a vigorous program,” said Nicholas W. Allard, the school’s dean.