Buying Time With A Two-Year J.D.

StudyGroup-300x179Right now, the demand for two-year programs is there, but the awareness often isn’t. In a Brooklyn Law-sponsored survey of 1,682 prospective law students, 37% of respondents—some of whom weren’t sure they’d apply—said they’d prefer a two-year program over a three-year program. Still, only 28% of the respondents had heard of the two-year programs that currently exist.
None of these programs are significantly cheaper than their standard counterparts, simply because students have to take the same amount of units; the American Bar Association requires at least 80. Still, if nothing else, graduates can start work a year earlier. “I applied to a lot of regular programs, and then as soon as I learned that [a two-year program] was an option, it was hard to do anything else,” Southwestern 2L Orly Ravid says. “I’m not right out of college. I’ve had a career already and I just felt—I would love to really concentrate my energies and do it quickly.”
These programs aren’t meant for people who feel like exploring their options for a while. “The main thing I see from them is like, ‘I’ve got time to figure it out,’” says Pepperdine 1L Katherine Stranz, describing the attitude of her three-year counterparts. “I’m like, ‘I’ve only got another year and a half. I’ve got to get it figured out now.’” But considering the price tag, perhaps law school isn’t the smartest place to explore anyway.
Between 1975 and 2013, the reasons for launching a two-year J.D. program haven’t changed drastically. “One of the hallmarks of Southwestern is that we try and create programs that meet the needs of different people,” Associate Dean for Public Affairs Leslie Steinberg says, explaining why Southwestern went the two-year route nearly four decades ago. “We already had a full-time day program and a part-time evening program. This was a third way that people could get their J.D., and it was possibly going to attract people who had been out in the world and were already bringing some background experience, who wanted to get through the program a little more quickly and intensely.”
Allard echoes the need to give students options. “This is not the time to give students less training and less education and less preparation,” he says. “But it is time to increase students’ choice—and so this is a choice.”
At Northwestern, the emphasis is on attracting students who are as hirable as possible. In 2008, the school evaluated all its programs as part of a strategic plan. “There was a lot of outreach to managing partners at law firms,” Associate Dean of Academic Initiatives Emerson H. Tiller says. It turned out employers wanted graduates who’d already developed “desired competencies”—such as teamwork and project management—that had more to do with general work experience than a deep knowledge of the law. “The reason they might not come back to law school is that they’re so far on into their careers and it’s such a sacrifice to do three years,” Tiller says. “They might be convinced to do two years because they’ll gain back a year of employment and they won’t be out of the workforce as long.”
Northwestern has the distinction of being the only elite law school with a two-year J.D. program. “Elite law schools are fairly conservative institutions,” Tiller says. “They may not know the market need to do it.”
Pepperdine’s dean gets right down to the stickiest issue: money. “I think all of us in legal education are concerned about the cost of legal education,” Dean Deanell Reece Tacha says. “One way to reduce the cost is to reduce the time it takes to get a law degree, and therefore speed up the time to taking the bar exam.”
When evaluating applications for two-year J.D. programs, admissions officials have to ask themselves an extra question: Can these candidates go non-stop? Cramming three years’ worth of units into two years means students don’t have traditional winter and summer breaks to recuperate. “I’m actually going to come back and take a class over Christmas,” Stranz says matter-of-factly. “I don’t mind it, just because I’m viewing it as a job instead of like, undergrad, where you go to class and you don’t really pay attention. I’m treating it as if I’m hired and I need to be there and put in the hours.”