Northwestern University is today announcing a new choice for those applying to its law school: a degree in just two years.
Such an option would have been impossible until 2004, when the American Bar Association lifted a requirement that law degrees follow six semesters of instruction. In 2005, the University of Dayton introduced a two-year option  that officials there say has been a success. Northwestern is among the bigger names in legal education, however, so its move may have more of an impact.
The Northwestern program, like Dayton's, is one of five semesters. Starting next year, some Northwestern law students will begin their courses the summer immediately after they are admitted, rather than in the fall. Then students would enroll in the regular fall and spring semesters for the next two academic years, leaving time for the traditional law internship between the two full years. Students would complete the same number of courses and credits in the two- and three-year programs, with accelerated students simply taking an extra course most semesters.
David Van Zandt, dean of the law school, said in an interview Thursday that no decision had been made about whether tuition would differ for the program. While Northwestern currently charges tuition of $42,672 for a year of law school, Van Zandt said that the decision may be to charge by the program and not the semester. The financial attraction to the program, he said, is much more likely to be the ability to be earning a salary a year earlier -- not an insignificant matter when many Northwestern law grads pull in $150,000 to $200,000 in their first jobs.
The two-year option is part of a broader reform of the law school curriculum, including the addition of new courses to be required of both two-year and three-year students. The curriculum was designed based on focus groups with many law firms and other entities that employ lawyers. Van Zandt said that Northwestern specifically asked the employers whether they would have any hesitations about hiring law grads who complete the program at a speedier pace, and that the employers didn't care at all -- and some said that they were excited about hiring such graduates.
While the two-year option will have the same curriculum as the traditional program, Van Zandt said that to be admitted to it, applicants will be required to have two or three years of "substantive work experience" after college. While this is typical of Northwestern law admissions, it is not a requirement for the three-year program. People with work experience are likely to have "the good time management" necessary, he said.
Northwestern hopes to admit 25-40 students into a two-year program next year. Van Zandt said he expected the program to be popular and that students would not be put off by the need to finish requirements on a schedule that will be compressed. Northwestern has a joint J.D.-M.B.A. program that used to be four years and when it switched to three, forcing students to do more work each semester, applications skyrocketed, he said.
Lori Shaw, dean of students at Dayton's law school, said that the first graduates of the two-year program have just completed their degrees. While she said several years of data should be analyzed before drawing firm conclusions, all the early results are positive, she said. Academically, the students perform as well as those taking three years to graduate. The average age is about three years older.
Shaw said she was particularly pleased to see that about 20 percent of the first cohort received honors for volunteer work they did while in law school, while others worked on the Dayton Law Review. There was no evidence that the two-year students were unable to participate in the full law school experience, she said. "They find the time to do things," she said. "It's fascinating to see how much they can do."
While Northwestern's two-year option is the most dramatic reform being announced today, there are other curricular changes as well. Northwestern is adding three new required courses (to the nine currently required, largely following a traditional law curriculum), starting with the two-year program and eventually being required of everyone. The new requirements are:
- Quantitative analysis (accounting, finance and statistics).
- Dynamics of legal behavior (teamwork, leadership and project management).
- Strategic decision making.
These topic areas were grouped by faculty members based on the focus groups of what legal employers need, Van Zandt said. He said that there were some surprises in that the strongest push for more quantitative analysis among graduates came from nonprofit groups that hire lawyers, not from corporate law firms.
A theme behind the new courses and plans to revamp existing courses is an emphasis on communication skills, Van Zandt said. In addition to traditional legal writing (a memo, a brief), he said employers urged the law school to stress such skills as the ability to deliver advice to a client in a one-page memo. A common complaint was that lawyers appear to have been taught to "waffle," Van Zandt said. He hopes that Northwestern will be training lawyers who will when appropriate "make a firm recommendation" and know how to communicate that -- either to fellow lawyers or people who aren't lawyers.
For students in the traditional three-year program, Northwestern is also introducing new options, especially in the third year. Several programs will allow students to spend up to a semester in full-time "experiential" programs, such as working in a legal clinic, working as an apprentice in a law firm outside the United States, or for those considering academic careers, various research options.
The emphasis on expanded practical education mirrors recommendations issued last year  by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In March, the law school at Washington and Lee University  announced a plan to replace the entire third-year curriculum with experiential courses and programs.
Van Zandt said that the changes at Northwestern and elsewhere suggested to him that more law schools would soon be creating options to overhaul or eliminate year three. "Legal education is extremely conservative," he said, "but long term this is inevitable."