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Will Texas Law Schools Drop the Third Year?

When President Obama recently mentioned the possibility of law schools dropping the third year of education there was a big negative reaction from law schools around the country. (For anyone who doesn’t know, law school requires three additional years of school following a four year undergraduate degree.) I’m sure the thought of losing ⅓ of the tuition a law student pays had nothing to do with the outcry…

An article at summarized the comments of the Texas law school deans. The article began with my law School, so I’ll quote that part:

Little enthusiasm prevails among Texas law school deans for any immediate switch to two-year programs, a possibility that received attention recently when advocated by President Barack Obama, a former law school professor.

“This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck. I am in my second term, so I can say it. I believe that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years,” Obama told a town hall-style meeting at Binghamton University in late August in New York, according to news accounts.

Deans from eight of Texas’ nine American Bar Association-accredited law schools responded to Texas Lawyer‘s emailed questions after the president made his remarks. All eight reported no immediate plans to establish a two-year program. ABA accreditation rules require 83 credit hours to earn a law degree, which several deans cited as an obstacle. But all the deans noted the need to address two trends driving the interest in two-year law schools: ever-rising tuition costs and law students’ necessity to acquire more practical experience. Excerpts of their responses are below.

Dean Bradley J.B. Toben at the Baylor University School of Law in Waco is among those most strongly opposed to a reduction in years in law schools.

“In light of significant student debt loads and the difficulty some graduates have in securing their desired legal positions upon graduation, the admonishment to law schools to always seek improvements to the system of legal education is appropriate,” he writes.

But, he notes, “We strongly disagree, however, that the answer is to reduce law school to two years. . . . Eliminating the third year of law school would only exacerbate the concerns raised by recent reports within our profession regarding the lack of preparedness of law graduates.”

At Baylor, historically, “Our approach to the second and third years deviates significantly from the traditional graduate school model employed by many other law schools. We always have spent more time on the practical application of law. In the past, many law schools viewed this approach as unworthy of law school time or unnecessary based upon the belief that students would receive instruction and mentoring under the tutelage of experienced supervisors after graduation. Such is no longer the case. Clearly, the profession recognizes that more practice skills training is needed. A law degree combined with the passage of a bar exam, a professional responsibility exam and a character and fitness investigation affords graduates the privilege of representing clients. It is imperative that we prepare them to do so competently.”

He also reports that his school will be making changes to its curriculum but not because of what the president said.

“Not in direct response to current discussions about the profession but as part of our ongoing efforts to always enhance our program, we recently implemented a new professional development requirement for our students. Beginning with this fall entering class, all Baylor Law students must attend a total of 15 seminar hours of professional development prior to graduation. Students will have the flexibility to tailor the professional development program to their own needs and to the kind of legal practice they seek to pursue. While in law school, students will attend professional development programs, each 1 to 2 hours in length, on topics such as law office organization and management, legal technology, client relations, legal ethics, leadership and others,” Toben writes.

As an alternative to a two-year law degree, Toben proposes shorter programs for “sophisticated paralegal[s] or legal assistants,” a reconsideration of once fashionable joint-degree bachelor and juris doctor degree programs, and apprenticeship programs for third year students.

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

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