An Undergraduate Law Degree

Volume 38 Number 6

By

About the Author

Bob Denney is president of Robert Denney Associates, Inc. He and his firm have been providing strategic management and marketing counsel to law firms throughout the United States and parts of Canada for over 30 years.

Law Practice Magazine | November/December 2012 | The Client Service IssueCould this be a trend? I titled my column in the September/October issue of Law Practice Law Schools Need New Strategies to Reverse Negative Trends.” Since then, I have come across a little-noticed article that appeared this year in the January 17 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Its title? “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Law Schools.”

The authors, John O. McGinnis, a professor of law at Northwestern University, and Russell Mangas, an attorney at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, begin by stating, “The high cost of graduate legal education limits the supply of lawyers and leads to higher legal fees. And higher fees place legal services out of the reach of middle-income families.” Then, after supporting the merits of legal education to “serve important public needs,” they present their solution: “States should permit undergraduate colleges to offer majors in law that will entitle graduates to take the bar exam.”

ENCOURAGING APPRENTICESHIPS

The authors add the suggestion that states could ask graduates to serve one-year apprenticeships before becoming eligible for admission to the bar. They maintain that this “would allow young lawyers to replace the superfluous third year of law school with practical training.” As a result, this “would reduce the law school tuition to zero.” They then state that this idea is “hardly untested” because, according to them, in Great Britain, lawyers are educated in college, not graduate school. Note that this is not entirely true. Many U.K. students study law as undergraduates, earning an LL.B. or a B.A. Others study a different undergraduate subject and then take a one-year conversion course that covers the basic areas of law.

At this point, McGinnis and Mangas discuss how an undergraduate degree in law could result in innovations in legal training, which is something many legal pundits have been advocating—with increasing intensity—for some time. One of the examples mentioned in the article is that providing an interdisciplinary education would be easier, “mixing elements of social science and humanities with legal doctrine.” Another example is that students could include courses in statistics, economics and psychology because “law demands fluency in many such disciplines,” and students wouldn’t have to try “to catch up in law school.” The authors conclude that, as a result, “an undergraduate legal education has the potential to produce better rounded, more capable lawyers.”

At first, that conclusion seems plausible. But let’s wait a minute. How can four years of interdisciplinary education that is combined with legal training, produce better-rounded, more-capable lawyers than four years of only interdisciplinary education that is followed by three years of legal training? I can’t follow that reasoning.

MAINTAINING GRADUATE LAW SCHOOLS

However, McGinnis and Mangas don’t eliminate law schools in their argument. They go on to say, “Of course, encouraging colleges to offer undergraduate legal education would not prohibit law schools from continuing to offer the current, three-year J.D. program.” This statement is followed by a lengthy explanation: “Further, the undergraduate option would improve graduate education by forcing law schools to justify their cost by offering additional benefits. LL.M. programs—which result in a master’s degree—would also become more robust, as undergraduate-educated lawyers can earlier gain practical experience to better decide what specialty course to pursue. Overall, by increasing competition, an undergraduate law degree would increase diversity and quality in legal education.”

In an unrelated development last summer, Yale Law School, while not referring to an undergraduate law degree, broke new ground at the other end of the legal education spectrum. It announced a program for a Ph.D. in law that it claimed is the first in the nation. According to the school, the program is designed “to prepare students who have earned a J.D. to enter careers in legal scholarship” and who want to work as law professors. This would certainly add to the cost of a legal education.

At the end of their article, McGinnis and Mangas return to their opening statement about the high cost of law school and then make this closing statement: “But the great benefit of the undergraduate option would be lowering the cost of legal education, thus increasing the supply of lawyers willing to charge lower fees. Lower fees mean broader access for middle- and lower-income Americans. Ultimately law exists to serve the public.”

Although, in my opinion, McGinnis and Mangas overstate the benefits of an undergraduate law degree, I also believe they have an interesting idea that deserves more—and more thoughtful—discussion. The one-year apprenticeship before a lawyer could be eligible for admission to the bar certainly merits serious consideration. A graduate of medical school becomes a doctor, but, in most states, is still required to complete an internship or residency before he or she can receive a license to practice. Why shouldn’t the legal profession have the same requirement?

Whether or not an undergraduate law degree becomes a trend, I hope an apprenticeship in the law does.

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