Committing to Law

November 19th, 2013 / By

I have proposed dividing legal education into an undergraduate major (which would include the 1L year plus one semester of electives) complemented by a two-year JD (which would focus on advanced doctrinal courses and clinical work). One practical question about this proposal is: What happens to students who pursue a non-law major in college but later decide that they want to practice law? There are several answers to this important question.

Complex Professions Require Extended Education

First, we should be realistic about the education that professional work requires. Professionals in other complex fields begin their preparation as early as middle school. Future doctors and engineers, for example, push ahead in the secondary math/science curriculum. In college, they take courses required for their major (engineering) or admission to medical school. No one doubts that these fields require extensive education acquired over numerous years.

The same is true of most academic fields outside of law. Respected graduate programs in history, philosophy, and other fields do not admit applicants who lack undergraduate preparation in those subjects. Programs sometimes admit students who majored in a different field, but those applicants must demonstrate other coursework that prepared them for graduate work in the subject. In addition to field-specific coursework, many graduate programs in the humanities require language proficiency; those in the social sciences may require languages, quantitative skills, or relevant research experience. A college senior who majored in classics can’t suddenly decide to pursue a PhD in psychology; nor can the psychology major abruptly switch to doctoral work in classics.

Law is one of the few post-baccalaureate programs that admits students without specifying any prerequisites other than a BA. This in itself should suggest that our initial coursework is designed for undergraduate majors rather than college graduates. The first year and a half of law school is introductory legal education that could–and should–be completed in college.

At the same time, our degree structure leaves too little time to prepare graduates for the complex work that genuinely requires a law license. Document review is not complex; a college graduate with a law major could perform that work. Prosecuting crimes, representing criminal defendants, arranging international real estate deals, or helping healthcare clients restructure operations to comply with the latest healthcare regulations is complex. Entry-level lawyers need more preparation–primarily in people, business, and clinical skills–to begin work in these fields.

Creating a law major recognizes that law is a complex field–just like medicine, engineering, philosophy, history, psychology, and other professions.

Career Changers

But what about the engineer who wants to become a lawyer? Or the historian who fails to find a tenure-track position and hopes to pursue law as a fallback? Or the well meaning student who did well in college but couldn’t quite decide on a path? How would any of those graduates find their way into the legal profession if they failed to major in law as college students?

There are many potential roads for these students, just as routes exist for college graduates who lack necessary preparation for medicine, engineering, and other fields. Some career-changers enroll as post-graduate or continuing education students to complete undergraduate coursework needed for their new path. Some universities have created special programs for these students. Johns Hopkins, for example, offers a “post-baccalaureate premedical” program that allows college graduates to take the coursework they need for medical school.

Graduates who want to pursue a PhD unrelated to their college major, similarly, may complete a Master’s degree in the field before gaining admission to a doctoral program. Others may gain conditional admission to the doctoral program, promising to complete necessary undergraduate courses during their first year in the program. These students don’t receive credit toward the PhD for those preparatory courses, but they are able to enroll in the courses and complete them.

Law schools could adopt options like these to accommodate college graduates who decide to pursue a legal degree without completing the necessary college courses. Those graduates probably could complete the 45 credits of an undergraduate major in a post-BA program encompassing a full calendar year. Alternatively, they could complete the work in a part-time program stretching over two or more years. Law schools undoubtedly could devise a variety of programs to accommodate these students, just as we have created special LLM programs for increasingly diverse audiences. I wager that the new programs would be more popular than many of the current LLM programs for nonlawyers; the proposed programs would give students a solid grounding in law and qualify them to move on to the JD.

With the degree structure I propose, even a career changer could qualify for a law license after just 3-1/2 academic years: 1-1/2 years to replace the pre-law major and 2 years for the JD. If the student paid undergraduate tuition for the first part of that education, she might pay less than she would today for a 3-year JD.

The College Minor

Where there are majors, there are minors. A college minor in law would also answer some concerns about late bloomers and career changers. Students with a possible interest in law might complete 15-20 credits of college work to qualify for a law minor. Those courses would cover roughly the first semester of law school. In addition to offering excellent insights to students pursuing a variety of careers, this coursework would give late-deciders a boost if they later chose to pursue a JD. These students would need to make up only 25-30 credits of pre-JD legal study before beginning the 2-year JD. In other words, they would devote 3 post-baccalaureate years to obtaining a JD, just as students do today.

The Other Side of the Coin

Dividing legal education into a college major and a 2-year professional degree need not deter career changers from entering law. Equally important, the shift would give many more students an opportunity to explore legal education and decide whether that path is right for them.

Plenty of college students change their majors or convert an intended major into a minor. Some students who begin a law major in college will decide that they prefer philosophy, accounting, chemistry, or other fields. More power to them! It is better for these students to recognize their talents and preferences in college, rather than after investing in an expensive professional degree.

Conversely, college students with little knowledge of law practice may learn about law from their roommates and other friends. If law intrigues these students, they will have a low-cost opportunity to explore the field. Some will decide that law is not for them; others will decide to apply a law BA to a business or compliance career; still others will pursue a JD and practice law.

Summer work and internships during college will help these students decide whether law is the right career for them. Today’s colleges offer many opportunities for this work. A college student who has combined legal coursework with an internship or summer job will have a better basis than today’s students do for deciding whether to pursue graduate legal study.

The BA in law, finally, creates an option that students may exercise at any time. Some law majors may proceed directly to law school. Others may opt for jobs unrelated to law. Still others will pursue positions in compliance, human relations, legal process work, and other law-related fields that do not require a law license. After experience in those fields, some graduates may continue that work, seeking opportunities for advancement within their chosen area. Others may decide to obtain a JD, becoming licensed lawyers. Still others may pursue a graduate degree in another field such as business, computer science, or health policy. Those graduates may determine that their foundational coursework in law, combined with graduate study in another field, gives them the best career prospects.

More Choices

The bottom line is that a law major, combined with a more focused JD program, will give students more choices rather than fewer ones. Creating those choices is consistent with our new economy, which requires flexibility and adaptation.

  • Joan Howarth

    Interesting, as always. How should bar exams change? How would you expect them to change? My concern is that without significant changes in bar exams, too much of the two year program would be lost preparing for that exam, including memorizing again whatever had been learned as an undergraduate. Your proposal highlights a structural flaw in current bar exams, namely that they test primarily what was learned in the first year. It seems odd to require a graduate degree for eligibility for licensing when the licensing exam mainly tests what was taught to undergraduates.

  • DeborahMerritt

    Good question, Joan! I have some thoughts on this, which I hope to post in a day or two. Thanks for following the blog.

  • Benjamin Barros

    Joan raises an excellent point. One solution is to decouple the bar exam from law school graduation. In another context, I’ve suggested moving the bar exam to the second year summer:

    Something similar could be done to test these subjects earlier. Or, if we followed the placement exams strategy that I suggested in a comment to Deborah’s prior post, we could have those exams replace the all or some of the doctrinal components of the bar exam. If we retained a bar exam, it could be more practice focused. Or, admission to the bar could be based on something other than an exam.

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