Applications Open October 1 for First Such Program in the Pacific Northwest
Innovating to address the challenges of legal education, Gonzaga University School of Law will become the first Pacific Northwest school to offer a Juris Doctor degree in two calendar years. Gonzaga opens applications Oct. 1 for students to begin the two year program in Summer 2014 or the traditional three year program in Fall 2014.
Addressing Concerns About Legal Education
Problems with the nation’s legal education system are the subject of a draft report and recommendations from the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. The report, released Sept. 20 for public comment, recommends a variety of changes to a system the panel notes is suffering from sharp enrollment declines, rising tuition and student debt, and “dramatic changes, possibly structural” in the legal job market.
“These have resulted in real economic stresses on law schools, damage to career and economic prospects of many recent graduates, and diminished public confidence in the system of legal education,” the report notes, adding the current system of financing legal education must be “re-engineered.” The panel recommends the ABA repeal or liberalize accreditation requirements to let law schools more creatively restructure programs, cut costs, and offer students more options.
Innovating Within Current Standards
Gonzaga Law’s new two-year path toward a J.D. degree models innovation within existing ABA accreditation standards.
“Our new accelerated program provides motivated students with the option to complete their legal degree in only two years, with exceptional experiential and practice preparation requirements,” said Jane Korn, dean of Gonzaga School of Law. “This provides an extra year of opportunity for students. Practice-ready law graduates are not a fantasy – Gonzaga Law has been graduating practice-ready lawyers for years, and this program will speed the process without sacrificing educational quality.”
President Barack Obama joined in the debate recently, suggesting U.S. legal curricula should take two years, not three. Dean Korn agrees that a two-year law degree could work for some, highly motivated students who will have virtually no break. The ABA accredits law schools, and currently requires 58,000 minutes of instruction for a J.D. degree. Dean Korn believes the three-year program will remain unless the ABA significantly liberalizes its accreditation requirements.
“I have been in legal education for over 25 years and I do not think it is possible to have someone learn the theory of the law, the doctrine of the law, and also develop the practical skills that are deemed necessary in today’s law practice in two traditional 9-month academic years,” Dean Korn noted.
Finding Solutions in the Accelerated J.D.
Gonzaga Law’s Accelerated J.D. program has three terms per calendar year. To address the concern that students in accelerated programs have as much opportunity for internships and externships, Gonzaga’s new two-year program requires 12 credits of experiential learning and allows for up to 15 credits of this practical, hands-on training program. Also, both the two-year and three year programs require four terms of legal research and writing – double that of many law schools.
“It is the responsibility of law schools to find solutions for the challenges of legal education,” Dean Korn said. “While it would be irresponsible to cut the education students receive, it would be equally imprudent to fail to adapt to the changing needs of the legal industry and law students.”
The ABA report does not directly address President Obama’s recent suggestion for a two-year curriculum. However, Task Force Chair Randall T. Shepard, former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, called the proposal for two years “plausible enough that it’s worth examining,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s Sept. 20 Law Blog.