What Does Obama’s Two Year Law School Program Mean for Solos?

As you’ve probably heard, in a recent speech, President Obama endorsed cutting law school down to two years, with students spending their final year gaining work experience clerking or practicing at a firm.  Eliminating the third year of law school would reduce the overall cost for students, many of whom now graduate with debts of $100,000 or more.  A few bloggers have weighed in;  Professor Matt Brodie of PrawfsBlawg cynically asserts law schools won’t necessarily cut tuition so the anticipated savings may not result; at Legal Ethics ForumProfessor Stephen Gillers argues that unanswered questions such as what to call a 2-year degree to whether some tasks categorically require a three year degree. Scott Greenfield argues that the issue has to be addressed in the context of “the problem with the legal profession” with consideration of the potential consequences for clients.

Not surprisingly, my question is how a two-year law school program would impact solos. For me, impacts to solos are, in many cases, synonymous with impacts to clients because solos who can barely eke out a living or partake in risky ventures to make a buck without regard to ethics are a threat to clients.

No doubt, law school debt is an enormous hurdle to starting a law firm. Although the costs of starting a firm have declined significantly over the past decade, student debt has burgeoned such that new grads may have to cover $1500 in loan payments before they can pay for malpractice insurance, legal research, CLE and other costs associated with running a law practice. Before the job market went south, grads with an eye on solo practice could work for a few years, pay down debt, establish contacts and gain experience on an employers’ dime.  For grads with debt, I still view this approach as an optimal path to solo practice though I realize that for most, it simply isn’t viable any longer.

Assuming that cutting a year off of law school would commensurately cut costs by a third, a two year plan can help younger lawyers seeking to solo cost-wise.  But what about training – will new grads with two years of law school under their belt and a year of experience be ready to start a solo practice?

That depends – in large part on who’s offering the training. The one advantage that law schools have during third year is quality control. Students who participate in law-school sponsored legal clinics receive first rate training by first rate practitioners. Students involved in law-school sponsored moot court or trial advocacy programs have access to supervisory professors as well as to outstanding materials by companies like NITA and others.  When clinical training is “crowd-sourced,” so to speak by putting the responsibility on firms and judges and government offices to help students gain practical experience, there’s wide disparity in the training students receive and quality can suffer.  At a minimum, practitioners and firms that hire students as part of a third-year training would need to be screened by law schools and subject to certain standards. But that type of oversight costs money and could cut into cost savings.

Even if a training program doesn’t necessarily produce practice ready-solos, wouldn’t it help existing solos by providing a source of low cost labor? In theory, yes but not so much in practice. Just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as free labor.  To utilize a law student, a solo would still need office space and equipment for the student, and more importantly would need to devote time to training the student and overseeing and correcting the work product.  My guess is that even many solos would turn down free law student labor figuring it’s not worth the trouble.  Others might prefer to use students not for substantive work but for clerical work or IT which isn’t exactly the practical experience the student has bargained for.

On the other hand, my guess is that companies like Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer would jump at the chance for low cost student labor.  Newbies could be deployed to conduct legal research for new products or members of an LZ or RL network. They might potentially screen phone calls and man hotlines – and these companies could readily afford to absorb the ancillary costs of free or low cost labor. And newbies would get experience with very simple legal matters which isn’t a bad thing.

Overall, a two year program has both pros and cons for lawyers who seek to start a practice with the devil in the details. But ultimately, any solution to the law school debt crisis and legal education needs to examine the impact on the future sustainability of independent solo practitioners because without solos, our judicial system as we know it will not survive. Yet even as important decisions about the future of legal education are being made, solos continue to be marginalized.  While law schools have all kinds of centers and think tanks on the future of big law, solos are relegated to low bono incubator programs. That’s all well and good, but we need some real scholarship and thinking on the future of solos and smalls as our profession heads into the future – and to do that, solos have got to be part of the conversation, including conversations about two versus three years of law school.

What are your thoughts? Is two years of law school and work experience sufficient preparation to practice as a solo? Would you hire a newbie two years out if the cost were low or even free? Post your responses in the comment section below.