When Northwestern announced their Accelerated JD program in 2008, the law school touted their new program as an innovation that would “minimize opportunity costs and maximize learning for high achievers eager to resume their careers.” But last week Northwestern abruptly ended the program after only six years, citing the inability to grow the pool of applicants enough to make supporting the program economically viable.
Law school in the United States has been a three-year postgraduate course of study since the early 1900s. There have been a handful of law schools that have shortened the length of law school through the years—notably LA’s Southwestern Law School, which has offered a two year program since 1974. But when Northwestern announced their Accelerated JD program it instantly became the most renowned and most highly ranked school to chop a year off of the standard length of study. In the ensuing years, several more schools have created similar offerings, including Pepperdine University, Touro Law Center, and Brooklyn Law School, though no schools that are nearly as prestigious as Northwestern.
Although completing a law degree in only two thirds the time has a lot of surface appeal, the accelerated JDs have several large drawbacks, both of which may have contributed to Northwestern’s program’s demise. First, most two year programs cost the same as a three year program, because students generally take as many credits as every other law student. The only cost savings for the students come from the lessened opportunity cost of one fewer year out of the workforce. A second major drawback is that it can be harder to jump back into that workforce. Standard law students generally have two summers to pursue summer associateships or internships, and many graduate with a job offer in hand, or at least with some legal experience on their resumes. Accelerated JD students generally take a full course load in their summers and have less time to pursue post-graduation employment.
Although Northwestern claimed that their accelerated JD program was innovative, its biggest downfall may have been that it wasn’t innovative enough. Plenty of lawyers will tell you that the third year of law school isn’t really necessary, and that’s without having taken extra classes during the first two years. Personally, I spent my third year of law school studying European Union law in Holland one semester and finished the year taking courses such as “Religion and the Law” and “Law and Science.” I certainly enjoyed my third year of law school, but it didn’t really do anything to make me a better lawyer and certainly didn’t help prepare me to actually practice law. A program that just chopped off this last, often-wasted year and charged students for only two years of tuition would likely be the innovation that an accelerated JD program would need to attract enough high caliber applicants. But this would require the legal industry, and the ABA specifically, to change the way they do business—something this conservative industry rarely ever does.
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