Law schools have seen the water spilling over the deck. But, as LawProf wrote this morning, most are still shuffling their deck chairs. Some have thrown a few chairs overboard, while charging more for the remaining seats. Others are adding a whole new deck, urging graduates to cruise for a fourth year. Still others are sending students off to swab the decks of merchant ships, while continuing to collect full tuition for first-class seats on deck.
Forget the deck chairs, it's time to build lifeboats. Here's a boat that a nimble law school could assemble in less than a year. It won't solve all of the problems in legal education, but it would help students immediately, cost schools very little, and lay the foundation for future innovation. It doesn't require ABA approval, and central administration is likely to go along.
The boat: Give a master's degree to every student who successfully completes the first year of law school. That's the model that many PhD programs follow; a student earns a master's degree on the way to securing the doctorate. The first year of law school doesn't qualify students to practice law, but it represents significant academic achievement. By recognizing that work, schools can help both students and themselves. (Law Office Computing suggested this approach in a summer comment; my proposal also draws upon an idea floated by Akhil Amar and Ian Ayres last year. Amar and Ayres suggested a partial tuition refund for students leaving after the first year; I propose an MA for somewhat similar purposes.)
The benefits for students: The MA would give law students a needed boost of confidence at the end of the first year. Whatever their class standing, they have completed a rigorous year of study--and they deserve recognition for that. More important, the degree would give students needed flexibility in today's workplace. Students could continue their studies immediately to earn the JD; leave law school after one year with an MA in hand; or work for a few years before returning for the JD. To accommodate the last option, I would give students up to three years to return with no questions asked; they could petition to return after that point.
Note that students would not have to choose between the MA and a JD; all students who successfully completed the first year would receive the MA. A student who knew by the end of finals period that she hated law school might decide immediately to leave with her MA --but she could still return within three years to complete the JD. Another student might enroll for the second year but decide to withdraw after completing OCI; that student would still have the MA and a chance to return for the JD. Yet another student might receive an interesting job offer after his second summer; he could accept the offer, work for a few years, and return later to complete his JD if that made sense professionally.
The benefits for schools: We would help our students cope with a difficult, unpredictable job market. We would also help all of them feel some measure of success--and control over their professional lives--at the end of the first year. If those altruistic benefits aren't enough, here are a few more calculated ones:
1. Our upper-level students would have more focus and commitment; they would choose to pursue the JD over a plausible alternative. That commitment may pay off in both the classroom and the job market.
2. If some students depart after earning an MA, that relieves pressure on the JD job market--and on the school's placement office.
3. Some of the students who choose to leave with an MA may be ones who would have had particular trouble securing post-JD jobs. They, and the school's placement statistics, will fare better with good MA jobs instead of unattainable JD ones. Schools should disclose employment results for students who leave with an MA, but they could separate those results from the JD ones. A student who secures an HR position after a one-year MA will have a more attractive outcome than one who gets the same job--or none--after a three-year JD.
4. Students who leave with the MA, work for a few years, and then return to complete the JD would add useful perspectives to the classroom.
5. Prospective applicants, including some of the most talented ones, have started to shy away from the high-stakes law school lottery. An MA-JD path is less risky, and may tempt some of these talented students back to law school. (This is the part that makes me, personally, a little nervous. I don't want to oversell law school yet again. But I think the student options mitigate that concern.)
6. A school that implemented this program quickly would almost certainly reap a bonus in the qualifications of its admitted students. If you were deciding between two law schools, wouldn't you go to the one that offered you a free MA at the end of your first year--along with the flexibility that degree would provide? In a time of declining applications and credentials, even a small bonus could significantly affect a school's entering class profile.
The costs for schools: Implementing this proposal will take paperwork, and maybe some wrangling with the central university. But the in-course MA is standard in many PhD programs; central universities should find this type of proposal palatable. They might even take it as a sign that law schools have finally figured out the proper order of graduate degrees.
Law schools will, of course, worry about departing upper-level students and lost tuition. But this program is one that can adapt to student choices. Over time, if the MA works for students, law schools may enroll more first-year students and fewer upper-level ones. There's nothing wrong with that. One way or another, the structure of legal education is going to change. This is one way to grab hold of the reins and try to stay on top of the changes rather than trailing behind them.
Schools will also worry about uncertainty; it's harder to plan your upper-level courses if you're not sure how many students will return to campus. But uncertainty is a given in the new economy, and law schools are already learning to deal with that. How many schools had to adjust the size of 1L sections or writing classes after admitting a significantly smaller class this year? Will we offer as many Evidence and Business Associations sections next year, when the 2L class is correspondingly smaller? We can learn to deal with enrollment shifts, just as other businesses do.
Benefits for the future: This proposal is a modest one; it doesn't cure the deeper ills of legal education and the job market. But, in addition to the immediate benefits outlined above, I think this proposal would help law schools measure the value of their education (What does the first year accomplish? What do the upper-level years add?), probe the connection between their classes and the new job market, and begin adapting their degrees. We are far too wedded to the three-year JD, a degree that many segments of the economy no longer value. Creating an MA for successful 1Ls will shake up our assumptions and help us move in new directions.