Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Northwestern's "Two-Year" JD Program

UPDATE:  Comments are now actually open, sorry about that!

Northwestern University Law School is now the first of the top law schools to offer a so-called "two-year" JD--it's 24 months, but it's 2 1/2 semesters, including one summer, of coursework, with a slightly higher course load each term than the norm.  The WSJ Law blog has a short article here, while InsideHigherEd reports on the program hereThe anonymous folks at Above the Law don't seem impressed, but they are, admittedly, an odd lot (with a few too many spillovers from the Autoadmit cesspool). Bill Henderson (Indiana) has a rather generous appraisal of the proposal here, making the best case for its merits.  (Professor Henderson notes the increase in Northwestern's median LSAT over the last dozen years or so, though omits one explanation I have heard most often from former Northwestern faculty:  namely, the use of "merit aid" money not for the top students in the applicant pool, but those with a marginally better LSAT than whatever the existing median LSAT had been.  Professor Henderson is no doubt correct to emphasize other factors as well, but I was surprised by the omission of this likely influence.)

Some readers will recall that five years ago, I remarked on the dramatic faculty exodus from Northwestern during the initial period of Dean Van Zandt's tenure; as I noted more recently, that seems to have ended, and the faculty has stabilized around a distinct institutional identity (broadly, law and empirical social science, as well as a quite conservative public law group, with some notable exceptions [e.g., Andrew Koppelman]).  But the other part of the institutional identity promoted by Van Zandt has been emulation of the Business School model of education (e.g., teamwork learning experiences, interviews prior to admission, work experience prior to law school strongly preferred, and so on), which the new so-called "two year" program further embeds.

One aspect of this plan which others have not remarked on may deserve some notice.  For one thing this move does is to differentiate even more firmly Northwestern from its downtown rival the University of Chicago.  We have seen such a local battle before, in the Columbia/NYU rivalry that unfolded over the last thirty years.  Until the early 1990s, Columbia clearly dominated NYU in almost every respect:  numerical credentials of students, their placement success at all levels (elite firms, clerkships, academia, etc.), faculty hiring and retention, academic reputation, and so on.  Over the last fifteen years that has changed, but it has changed because NYU chose to compete, successfully, with Columbia on the same turf, not because NYU was an innovator in legal education.  NYU "out-bid," in one way or another, Columbia for faculty, even recruiting faculty from Columbia in increasing numbers in recent years.  NYU recruited students with comparable numerical credentials, and has seen a steady increase in their professional success to the point that on many fronts, especially academia, NYU grads are doing about as well as the alumni of their uptown rival.

University of Chicago has been in a similarly dominant situation vis-a-vis Northwestern for at least the last fifty years (there was a time mid-20th-century when Northwestern--the Northwestern of John Wigmore and Leon Green, among others--was actually the dominant player).  The rise of law-and-economics in the 1970s--spearheaded by Chicago faculty--solidifed that hierarchy, and Chicago's famously intense intellectual culture and its dominance in national placement in clerkships, academia, and elite law firms have all enhanced and confirmed that position.  (Chicago's distance from the Rush Street bars may also be playing an important role in student self-selection!)

Northwestern, unlike NYU, has not chosen to compete head-to-head with its local competitor:  the numerical credentials of its students still trail Chicago's, it has won no head-to-head faculty hiring battles, and the only Chicago faculty it has hired have been those retiring from the Chicago faculty.  By pursuing a very different model of legal education, however, perhaps Northwestern has adopted the better strategy?  For both prospective students and faculty, the choice between Chicago and Northwestern may seem increasingly stark.   As Professor Henderson sums up the Northwestern plan:

NWU Law is going to attract applications from all the experienced, motivated students who want their elite JD degrees in two years versus three.  Then it is going to give them, through mandatory coursework, business training that will bridge the traditional gap between lawyers and their MBA clientèle.   Sorting plus training.  Why would an employer prefer a 25 year-old fresh out of another elite law school?

Well, maybe because of smarts and analytical rigor?  Assuming Northwestern can deliver on the kind of "training" described, there's still the question of intellectual caliber, which, at least at the most elite levels of the profession, goes a long way.  And this may be the riskiest aspect of the Northwestern plan:  that the emphasis on the Business School model, on more mandatory B-School style coursework, on work experience, and so on, is going to scare off the more intellectually inclined students that make a law school an attractive place for faculty.  One of the senior professors (a leading scholar in his fields) who left Northwestern a few years back made a telling comment to me at the time:  "I feel like Northwestern is no longer the place that would admit nerds like me."  A law school that increasingly bills itself as a business school may be less likely to attract those going to law school not only for professional training but for an intellectual and academic experience.  In any case, that seems to me the biggest question mark about what is otherwise a distinctive and perhaps prescient initiative.

Thoughts from readers?  No anonymous comments will be approved.

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Did you really just imply that Chicago students are of a higher intellectual caliber than NU students based on a minuscule numerical difference? NU doesn't compete head-to-head with Chicago because the two schools are seeking slightly different consumers.

NU pursues students who have real life work experience as the first step in their production top-notch, "business savvy" lawyers. There is more emphasis placed on "experience" at NU, and less emphasis placed in more traditional areas. They have recognized the changing legal environment and adapted their program to produce lawyers that will be successful in both the academic world and the real world. It is understandable why traditional professors (such as yourself) would prefer to teach at Chicago. I often get the impression that you have forgotten that the majority your students are going to practice law...

The nerd comment is a bit unfair, as most everyone at both institutions are nerds. Business savvy nerds are still nerds - they just care more about the motivations behind the latest merger and less about the implications of leaving out a citation in a recent supreme court case.

Posted by: Corey Hyden | Jul 2, 2008 9:54:57 AM

"Did you really just imply that Chicago students are of a higher intellectual caliber than NU students based on a minuscule numerical difference?"


"NU doesn't compete head-to-head with Chicago because the two schools are seeking slightly different consumers." I don't know if this is factually accurate, though it may well become so given the current changes.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 2, 2008 10:25:14 AM

This strikes me as an interesting, plausible experiment made more intriguing by the fact that it is being undertaken by a top school with a deserved reputation for innovation and ambition.

Yet there is a sense in which the attention focused on the experiment and on the nexus between this (and other) innovations and rankings, student recruitment, etc., misses the mark on what seriously plagues good law schools and threatens to derail any serious efforts at reinventing the modern law school. A much more serious malady than the length or breadth of law school programs is this: Utter faculty disinterest in inventions and ideas that are not themselves perfectly congruent with self-interest. An unfortunate by-product of the free agency that characterizes the current era is that the faculty members are seldom truly interested in reconfiguring in major ways their own pedagogy or, even more boldly, pressing hard on current institutional resources and their colleagues to change in any substantial ways (1) how curricula is organized, (2) how their own classes are reworked to address practical interests of 21st century would-be lawyers, and (3) the connecton between law learning (very broadly construed) and the eclectic concerns of the bench and bar. Top-down regulation by the guild's assigned authorities, AALS & ABA, is not the answer; nor does the answer lie in revisiting the tired trope that law profs make the wrong tradeoff between "teaching" and "scholarship" or between "theory" and "practice."

Change of any moderate sort (tipping my hand here that more radical reinvention of law schools ought to be viewed with healthy skepticism) will occur when faculty members begin to view such change as in their own professional self-interest. Exodus of talented college graduates away from law school entirely, or toward certain law schools, that develop a taste and aptitude for real innovation will push in this direction; so too will progress in constructing methods and modes of assessment -- considerably better than what is currently out there -- that connect the dots between new approaches to law learning and more successful young lawyering. Lastly, and to rely on a hopelessly homely observation, it will occur when faculty members trudge from yet another 1 1/2 hour experience involving 50 zombies in front of their networked laptop screens and a crude rendering of a over-done, but under-wrought, lecture on Torts or Property caselaw circa 1982.

None of this is to say that loping off a year of law school instruction is a bad move; it is just to say that the real predicament in law learning lies elsewhere. 'Tis our nasty secret: Law school is profoundly boring for all but a sliver of the best and the brightest. While it may never be Top Gun [or fill in the blank with your favorite formal learning endeavor], we can make considerably more interesting for those willing to spend two or three years of their life in our midst!

Posted by: Dan Rodriguez | Jul 2, 2008 11:04:15 AM

"Why would an employer prefer a 25 year-old fresh out of another elite law school? Well, maybe because of smarts and analytical rigor? Assuming Northwestern can deliver on the kind of "training" described, there's still the question of intellectual caliber, which, at least at the most elite levels of the profession, goes a long way."

Umm, that might be true for the "most elite levels of the profession," especially if such elite levels are defined as law school faculty. But first-year associates are not the most elite level. Sitzfleisch is probably what most employers of junior attorneys are looking for. Grades are a good--but imperfect--proxy for sitzfleisch. The confounding variable is brilliance--which I'm not sure the law firms are looking for.

Posted by: Joe Sommer | Jul 2, 2008 12:00:43 PM

Only a wet behind the ears Chicagoan would suggest that students drink at Rush Street bars.

Posted by: Chicagoan | Jul 2, 2008 3:41:30 PM

Although many people view a J.D. on par with an M.D., I still wonder how a 2-year program will affect the perception of lawyers (vis-a-vis an M.D.). Would it been seen as something akin to an M.B.A.? I guess it can't get much worse (sigh). . . .

Posted by: Dave | Jul 2, 2008 3:49:23 PM

chicagoan--way to focus on the important issues

it strikes me that nwu's effort could discredit a law degree somewhat if it is widely adopted, but law degrees are not judged in a vacuum because of the large number of law schools that accept students with less than impressive credentials. i think, rather, the program could do more to discredit an nwu law degree than anything else, and my argument doesn't assume that a law degree deserves the prestige is still, to some extent, has.

Posted by: another chicagoan | Jul 2, 2008 9:33:19 PM

From a student's perspective the NW 2-year degree trades off a summer or two (do they start summer before the 1st year?) with relatively low expected earnings for a year with relatively high expected earnings. A potential cost is that law firms may be marginally less inclined to hire someone finishing the second year who has finished the JD. This partly depends on the extent to which law firms use the summer program to screen prospective associates.

From the school and the faculty's perspective, staffing summer courses is difficult. For years UT had a robust summer program. Back in the 80s and early 90s I taught oil and gas, commercial torts, and even first year contracts in the summer (we once started a 5th section in the summer). My sense was that summer courses worked quite well pedagogically. Even Contracts. But summer research money has become the norm. Indeed, it is a major part of UT's compensation package. I expect this is true elsewhere as well. As a consequence faculty are much less inclined to teach in the summer. This means thinner pickings for the students and I expect will put the administration in a bind in staffing the courses.

Posted by: Mark Gergen | Jul 3, 2008 3:55:00 AM


NU's relatively small 3-year JD/MBA program (where 1L classes are taught over the summer) has existed for a number of years. I imagine the school will use these summer professors for the new program.

Posted by: Corey Hyden | Jul 3, 2008 7:36:42 AM

I actually think this is a non-event since Northwestern students on the accelerated program will still have to complete the same number of credits as the students there for three years.

The opportunity to graduate early has always been a possibility for law students, and several of my classmates did just that. I don't know if there is a law school out there that would forbid a student from taking a courseload that would allow that person to graduate early (please correct me if I am wrong). The greater obstacle to graduating early is normally not a law school's policy on such matters; rather, it is the general lack of interest from students in carrying the high number of credits per semester to accomplish such a feat(I don't blame them!). Forced grade curves and the importance of GPA for things like federal clerkships (as well as the desire for any social life) help keep the interest in accelerated coursework in check.

It will be interesting to see if there are any effects here. Given the skyrocketing cost of a legal education, and the realities of the job market for large numbers of law grads, schools may take steps to formalize these programs, if only to make it appear that they are providing a cheaper option.

Posted by: Dave Nardolillo | Jul 3, 2008 7:40:02 AM

I have not seen much commentary on the issue of OCI for the two year program, which seems like one of its bigger problems. As I understand it from current NU students, the two years will go directly from their first summer semester into Fall OCI.

We all have seen the arguments that having almost all hiring done during the first semester of 2L leads to many problems. It provokes the common complaint that the 3L year is a "waste" -- one of the nominal reasons for creating this two year program in the first place, and the obvious motive behind other reforms like Washington & Lee's new 3L curriculum. Others feel that it puts far too much pressure on students to achieve a high class rank in the critical 1L year -- discounting the value of their work in the last two years and dooming them to greatly narrowed career choices if they do less well at the beginning.

If we thought things were bad under the current system, then what will be the effect of firms selecting new lawyers based on just ninety days and as few as nine to twelve credit hours worth of work? If the current system imposes excessive pressure and consequences on the first year, then we would expect this program to lead to even more hellish and absurd effects. And what will firms even be selecting for when they extend offers to these people? At the most they'll be judging candidates based on something three months of class work and nine to sixteen hours spent taking final exams. This seems only slightly less silly than hiring new lawyers based on LSAT scores.

We might assume that firms will hire these candidates based on whatever they did before law school (engineering or science related work experience, for instance), since it seems NU intends to select more seasoned people than they do for the regular program. But if that's the case, and if nothing after that first semester really "counts," then there will be even more reason to feel that most of the time spent in the program is a waste. Nothing after those first three months will affect their outcomes in the all important OCI process, and the act of enrolling amounts to little more than buying a raffle ticket for the interview process.

If we think that the current hiring practices distort the process and value of legal education in bad ways, then this seems like it's moving in the exact opposite direction needed for reform. We ought to be moving hiring closer to graduation, in the 3L year -- not holding it practically on the heels of orientation. And if we're trying to address a lack of relevance for the last two years of the curriculum, or to give students a chance to get into the workforce sooner, then something like Northeastern's co-op model seems much better suited.

Also, the various articles should make this clear, but in response to earlier comments: 1) This is not at all a "cheaper option"; and 2) It does not amount to "lobbing off the third year." NU has stated that the two year program will cost the same or about the same as the regular JD. And that makes sense, because you're consuming just as much legal education as you would in the regular program -- you're just taking it in a shorter period of calendar time. Other than a slight reduction in the opportunity cost of absence from full-time work, the program has no net economic benefit for students.

Posted by: Michael Shaffer | Jul 3, 2008 10:33:13 AM

Another point not often mentioned: Students in the two year program will not be able to participate in any of the journals:

This seems to clearly stamp the two year program as a strictly "vocational" degree, inviting only to those looking to get a job with a law firm in the shortest number of months possible. Having no access to law review seems like it will give two year students almost no prospect of landing most clerkships. And this will certainly rule out any future in academia (not that the prospects for that are good anywhere outside of the top three or four schools).

But this may even pose problems getting hired at certain elite firms that have a bias towards students who make law review or that are fond of hiring (and paying huge bonuses to) those coming off of clerkships. Candidates in this program will no doubt get some lucrative job offers. But they may also be greatly shrinking the possible scope of their career before it even begins. There is little reason to mourn the loss of options you will never use. But this seems like a pretty drastic foreclosure of choices, and one that can not be undone.

Posted by: Michael Shaffer | Jul 3, 2008 11:01:39 AM

Thanks for the correction on the cost issue, Michael. That raises some additional questions as to the benefits of doing this for the student on top of the other points you raise.

Although it does make sense that the cost would be the same, one of the incentives that drives people to undertake the task of cramming law school into two calendar years is the potential savings aside from the opportunity cost. Walking out of law school with the same amount of debt after two years doesn't seem to be worth the additional year of work opportunity, at least to me. Sprinkling the credits over three years allowed me some good opportunities in the law clinics (really some of the most meaningful legal education I received) and to build connections via part-time employment as a law clerk. I am not sure if those opportunities would have been feasible if I had to juggle a larger courseload. I personally would assign a higher value to that than 2 years at the same total tuition, even if by this time I was a year closer to partnership!



Posted by: Dave Nardolillo | Jul 3, 2008 11:17:47 AM

I concur with Dave on the loss from cutting people out of chances for internships, clinics, and other practical and work experiences while studying. Students have access to many options for paid and volunteer work while in school, often with employers or agencies who would never hire them as fresh graduates with no experience.

A compressed program seems to rob the majority of students of time that they should be using to fill out their resumes, learn skills they will need in practice, and develop connections in their professional network. It's not just having one year less to do these things -- the intense curriculum might rule out almost all outside activities even during the two years that it lasts. And for the great majority at most schools who do not achieve the grades needed for automatic recruitment by large firms, this may be a huge loss.

This seems like a problem especially for those looking for careers in public interest or government service, where employers tend to favor candidates with at least some relevant experience. Those do not seem like the people NU is trying to attract with this program. But this is another way in which the program may foreclose certain options other than private practice in large firms.

Posted by: | Jul 3, 2008 11:59:30 AM

NU is clearly an innovator and responding to demand in the market from both prospective students (shorter, cheaper JD) and employers (job candidates with experience and business skills). Graduating a group of top students a year faster saves the students opportunity cost plus living expenses for the third year, about $190k if you're headed to a top law firm. It also allows the school to utilize its classrooms and faculty year-round. I wish more schools were as entrepreneurial and innovative as NWU.

Posted by: Michael Machen | Jul 3, 2008 12:58:18 PM

Whethere there is demand for this from prospective students remains to be seen, it can not be assumed. The "focus groups," at least as represented by Northwestern, suggest some demand from legal employers. We will have a clearer picture in about five years how widespread this "demand" turns out to be.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 3, 2008 1:03:07 PM

Indiana University School of Law---Bloomington had this program for about 30 years----indeed, I graduated from it. But I was alone among the 40 people who started with me, most of whom were lured out of the program by summer employment opportunities, journal and moot court opportunities, or just plain exhaustion. I had small children, and it was a good option for me, but I do remember a large number of visitors and adjuncts in the summer, rather than full-time faculty. Ultimately, most of the full-time faculty who taught in the summer opted out in favor of research time. In the end, I think it was most effective as a marketing tool to attract good students. As an alum (and dean), I can say that the "summer starters" are remembered fondly by many faculty, although most of these graduates are a bit confused about exactly when they should show up for reunions. Best, Lauren Robel, Dean, Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington

Posted by: Lauren Robel | Jul 3, 2008 2:21:31 PM

While I'll avoid any direct commentary on the specific issue of the 2-year degree, I'm very gratified to hear some confirmation of my own thoughts on the different cultures of Northwestern and Chicago. As a prospective 1L for the fall, I turned down a decent grant from Northwestern in favor of Chicago, mainly because I felt I would be more comfortable in the environment at Chicago. Admittedly, I'm one of those older aspiring lawyers that have some time in a "real" job that Northwestern is trying to recruit, but Northwestern's emphasis on work experience and older, less traditional students seemed to me at least to also create a student body for whom law school was strictly a means to an end, to get started on their second career or what have you. I worked my way all through undergrad at a public university, and there is something (for me at least) terribly exciting about being able to just... study law for a while. I wasn't sure Northwestern's other students would really share that excitement with me like Chicago would.

Still, with Northwestern being such a highly-regarded school in general, I thought maybe I was reading something into the culture that wasn't there, or that I was misinterpreting things a bit. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who shares that perception.

Posted by: Incoming U of Chicago 1L | Jul 3, 2008 2:33:29 PM

One other comment, on Mr. Sommer's suggestion that elite law firms merely want Sitzfleisch, not brains. I think this betrays an unfamiliarity with the best law firms. Even those that hire a certain amount of Sitzfleisch still wants the brains and analytical smarts, and work is quickly doled out accordingly. Northwestern may well give their students an edge in the job market--if they deliver on the B-School training--but given the nature of law as an intellectual discipline and profession, there will always be demand for the smartest of the smart.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 3, 2008 3:16:55 PM

Dave -- at HLS, we're not allowed to graduate early, nor is it possible to take enough credits during one's 2L year to even make that possible.

Posted by: HLS 2L | Jul 4, 2008 4:10:14 PM

this programs looks like it has 2 components which each have pluses and minuses.

it's shorter, but there's already summer start programs and night programs that change up the way that things are scheduled for people who have different scheduling needs. this is I assume the key element for the program, that it allows a person to get the same piece of paper in less time. It certainly would decrease the amount of opportunity that a student would have for engaging in activities, but that's a tradeoff that any student in this program would be agreeing to. Knowing what we know about their love of the USNews rankings, I doubt that Northwestern would allow a program like this to diminish their admissions standards, so I think we have to assume that any student capable of getting into this program is probably capable of getting into their regular program or a similar program at another top school. This would distinguish this from programs like the GULC part time program which has recently caused a change in the USNews rankings for being a backdoor entryway to an elite law degree.

it also involves the creation of several new courses which emphasize business school issues, which I assume is a response to law firms complaining about recent grads being useless in this regard. not being an ivory tower sort, I can't see what's the harm in replacing a few upper electives with slightly more practical upper electives. this sounds absolutely no different than taking clinics for credit and internships etc which I don't hear anyone complaining about. isn't it to the great shame of law school education that it has such a reputation for being useless in private practice, leaving so much continuing education to be done on the job by one's employers? i'm not especially confident that this particular program will work out, but some experimentation with a partially broken model would be a good thing.

Posted by: Colin | Jul 8, 2008 9:53:26 AM

If the "two year program" is actually "go to school for two summers" so that it is still a six semester program, then Baylor already has one (I know a lawyer who graduated from Baylor in two years by going to school all summer each year). A number of schools offer class schedules that work out the same way (as noted by other posters, giving examples).

I'd like to see some discussion of substantive differences rather than the "go to school through the summer" twist which really isn't a difference.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Jul 12, 2008 10:51:58 AM

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