Apparently, some important and influential people are considering rule changes that would allow prospective lawyers to take the Bar exam after only two years of law school, rather than three. Two legal professors have endorsed this rule change in an op-ed in the New York Times. I agree with the reasoning in the editorial (so do go and read!), but I would just add three extra points to it:
(1) Information technology should change how we think about credentialing for a lot of professions, particularly law. I work in academic research, and I and my co-workers have a saying about information/data: “If I can’t find it in 10 minutes of Googling, it almost certainly doesn’t exist.” As more and more data comes online, and as online platforms become better and better at organizing it, it will soon become the case that, “if I can’t find it in 2 minutes, it certainly doesn’t exist.” Why does this matter? Well, part of the idea behind the formal certification of lawyers (i.e., requiring three years at an accredited law school plus passage of the Bar exam) is that, once upon a time, information was less handy, and so you wanted to guarantee that the people who advertised themselves as lawyers actually, well, knew the law, and had mastered the relevant knowledge up front. But today we have fabulous, superior “extended minds”–with more memory and more data-storage capacity than our actual brains–available at our finger tips in the form of iPhones and PCs. So now, mastering a large body of knowledge and consolidating it into the memory in our grey matter is less important, because we can extract the information more easily and reliably with a few searches. Does this mean that there should be no accreditation, and anyone should be able to declare herself a lawyer now? No, certainly not. But it does mean that the things that law schools need to focus on imparting are different.
In brief: As long as you can access and search legal information very quickly and easily, your up-front mastery of a body of knowledge becomes less and and important, and four other things become paramount: #1, your basic raw intelligence, and the ability that gives you to quickly understand, interpret, and argue about the legal information in front of you; #2, your work ethic and conscientiousness; #3, your familiarity with and commitment to upholding the ethical standards of the profession; and #4, your practical knowledge of whatever specific legal area you’ll actually be working in. Prospective employers can already get plenty of information on how well you score on #1 and #2 by looking at undergraduate transcripts and LSAT scores, and interviewing you. #4 is something you gain only from actually getting a job and working your way up in a specialty. So #3 seems to me to be one of the only things we really need law schools specifically and primarily to impart. And I for one think they should be able to do so at less expense than $200,000 and three years of a bright young thing’s life. (Obviously, the scheme I’ve laid out is imperfect — interpreting legal writing mostly requires a lot of raw intelligence, but getting cold-called by legal professors and debating with your classmates for a while can’t hurt in laying the groundwork. And, on the other hand, a good employer, not just professors, will also teach you to respect the ethical standards of the legal profession.)
(2) A general pet peeve of mine is that there seems to be a kind of taboo against talking explicitly about the economic and moral value of cheapness. The writers of the editorial above give a lot of lofty justifications for two-year law schools without talking directly about the most immediate one. Law is so lucrative, and legal services are so expensive, precisely because the supply of lawyers is constrained by the difficulty and expense of obtaining a legal degree. So if you make it easier for talented people to enter into and compete in the legal-services market, you would definitely drive down the price of legal services. (And you also probably improve the quality of legal services (by encouraging more innovation, as more creative young minds compete to find new and better ways to deliver legal services.) Prospective lawyers will require lower wages when they’ve sunk less of their life and debt into preparing for the profession. We consumers of legal services — and we consumers of goods that are provided by businesses that pay for legal services — will pay less. Cheaper legal servies should be reflected in extra cheapness almost everywhere else, and make life for middle-class people easier. And that’s a really good thing that shouldn’t be forgotten or denigrated.
(3) Have you ever actually talked to a third-year law student? They all confirm that being a 3L amounts to a $70,000 year-long vacation. This is great deal for law students who aren’t very eager to make their way into the working world and for law professors whose services are consequently in higher demand — but it’s bad for pretty much everyone else.