Why Not Two or Three Years of Law School

by Ed Whelan

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman contends that President Obama “was dead wrong last month in suggesting that law school educations should be only two years.” Ackerman argues that a third year of law school is “a crucial resource in training lawyers for 21st-century challenges”—in particular, in enabling law students to learn enough about “statistics and social science” so that “they will be in a position to integrate technical insights into a broader understanding of the fundamental values of the American legal tradition.”

I can’t say that I find Ackerman’s argument persuasive. For starters, if it were genuinely so important for law students to get a training in “statistics and social science,” shouldn’t Ackerman be arguing that law schools should make such training mandatory? (How many law students now are using the third year to get that training?) Or perhaps law schools should encourage or require applicants to have already received such training. Why, after all, is law school the place to receive “systematic training” in statistics?

The broader question in any event is whether the American Bar Association, as the accrediting institution for law schools, should require a three-year program of study (or whether states should require candidates for admission to the bar to have graduated from an ABA-accredited law school). If the ABA were to accredit law schools that had two-year programs, the legal market would work out over time whether the third year is worthwhile. Accredited law schools would still be free to offer three-year programs; they simply wouldn’t be required to do so.

Update and clarification: (1) Ackerman offers some follow-up thoughts in this post. (2) By proposing a market test, I certainly don’t mean to imply that the answer the market provides is always the right one. But I see no particular reason to distrust it here.