The ABA allows law schools to admit students who have completed just three years of college. Standard 502(a) provides that “A law school shall require for admission to its J.D. degree program a bachelor’s degree, or successful completion of three-fourths of the work acceptable for a bachelor’s degree, from an institution that is accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education.” This rule allows law schools to create “three/three” programs that admit students after three years of college. Students in these programs complete the normal three-year JD program, with their college applying one year of the JD study toward a BA degree. Students thus earn a BA and JD in a total of six years rather than seven.
According to a recent paper by Kyle McEntee, Patrick Lynch, and Derek Tokaz, thirteen law schools currrently advertise three/three programs. Those programs are:
Albany Law/Sage College
Chicago-Kent Law/Shimer College
Columbia University (scroll down)
Georgia State University
Florida Coastal Law/Jacksonville University
Seton Hall Law/NJ Institute of Technology
Southwestern Law/Cal State University
St. Thomas University
Willamette University (scroll down)
Many of the existing programs have strict limits. Creighton offers the option only to business students; Columbia chooses only one or two students a year. All thirteen of these programs, furthermore, reflect partnerships between a single college and a single law school–often under the same university umbrella. In this form, three/three programs serve very few students.
Should law schools expand three/three programs to encompass more students and schools? Here are some pros and cons:
Advantages of Three/Three Programs
1. For students, the programs reduce the cost of becoming a lawyer. Students devote just six years of higher education, rather than seven, to qualifying for the bar. They save a year of tuition and opportunity costs.
2. In most other countries, law is an undergraduate degree. From a systemic perspective, three/three programs could move the United States closer to parity with other nations. If U.S. students and new lawyers are disadvantaged by our longer education track, this change would assist them.
3. From a law school’s perspective, three/three programs may attract students who are otherwise reluctant to invest in law school.
4. Again from the school’s perspective, three/three programs may offer a way to “lock in” attendance by especially talented undergraduates at a partner school.
Disadvantages of Three/Three Programs
1. The programs do nothing to reduce the cost of legal education. As McEntee and his coauthors note in the paper cited above, three/three programs try to solve the problem of soaring law school tuition by cutting a year from college. Former law school dean and university president Gene Nichol sounded a similar theme while speaking at this year’s AALS meeting. Would it be healthier for law schools to address their costs more directly?
2. Unless three/three programs become dominant, the programs may do little to solve the problem of declining law school applications and enrollment. College seniors and graduates won’t care that a few other students saved money by enrolling in a three/three program; these potential applicants will continue to compare the cost of legal education to other graduate and workplace options. If high tuition and a diminished job market are discouraging students from attending law school, then schools need to find a way to address those problems for the bulk of their applicants–not just for a small number who matriculate through a three/three option.
3. The fourth year of college provides significant pedagogic value for many students. College seniors write undergraduate theses, pursue research projects with professors, and study abroad. Students who pursue three/three programs may miss these opportunities, hampering their personal development as well as the contributions they make to law schools and the workplace.
4. The students who would benefit most economically from three/three programs, those with few financial resources, may be the students who most need four years of college. Students from affluent backgrounds have the chance to take college-level courses in high school, travel abroad with their parents, and pursue other special programs before they set foot on a college campus. Less fortunate students only begin to catch up with these opportunities during college. Three/three programs may either give a bonus to wealthy students (who are educationally ready for law school after just three years of college) or further penalize disadvantaged students (who feel financially pressured to combine college and law school).
5. In a three/three program, the student saves a year of college tuition rather than one of law school tuition. If the student attends a low-cost college or has a substantial undergrad scholarship, the tuition savings may be small.
6. Although the ABA allows three/three programs, at least one state (Ohio) severely restricts the ability of these students to take the bar. Ohio’s Supreme Court Rule I.1(B) requires bar applicants to earn a bachelor’s degree (i) before beginning law school or (ii) “through completion of courses and credits other than those received in law school.” This rule precludes three/three applicants from gaining bar admission in Ohio unless their law school is willing to let them take a full year of credits outside the law school. I have not found any other state with this restrictive a rule, but schools or students considering three/three programs should look carefully at bar admission rules. For a quick guide to each state’s rules, check the Directory of Bar Admission Offices on the home page for the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
7. Current three/three programs offer students few, if any, choices among law schools. At least for now, the programs pair a single college and law school. A student who enrolls in one of these programs may sacrifice the opportunity to attend a more prestigious law school, one that would have offered a larger scholarship, or one with other attractions. The narrow focus of these programs similarly limits their utility to law schools. If a law school can strike a three/three partnership with only a few colleges, the number of students admitted under the three/three umbrella will be small.
8. Colleges may resist establishment of three/three programs because they (a) interfere with the liberal arts mission, and (b) reduce undergraduate revenues. Unless colleges are willing to endorse these programs, and to accept credits from a large number of law schools, the programs will remain small.
How will employers react to three/three graduates? Will they treat these students identically to other law students? Or will they find that three/three’s lack maturity or useful educational background? Some law students find jobs by combining undergraduate experiences–gained through externships, part-time jobs, or special study programs–with their law school degree. Will three/three students lack some of these opportunities?
A three/three program may offer a useful option for a small number of students; my father obtained his Columbia BA and JD through a three/three program. But these programs seem unlikely to address the larger issues of cost associated with law school attendance. They may even interfere with full preparation of students for the workplace. Developing and administering any program takes time and money from a law school budget. Given the limited pay-off of three/three programs for schools and students, other innovations seem more promising than this one. But what do you think? What other costs and benefits have I missed?