Determine if a Two-Year Law School Program is a Good Fit

Delece Smith-Barrow

Sutton Smith received multiple admission offers when he applied to law school. As he weighed his choices, he considered the financial burden school could put on his family because his wife was also pursuing a graduate degree.

Smith chose the two-year program at the University of Dayton School of Law, one of a growing number of schools offering accelerated options for completing a J.D.

"The idea was that if we were going to unplug our income, if we could do that for two years as opposed to three, I'd get back in the job market sooner," says Smith, 26. "I'd have to borrow less money for living expenses."

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Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law announced earlier this month its accelerated option, Fast Forward, will start in 2014. In May, the Pepperdine University School of Law will welcome the inaugural class for its two-year program.

The American Bar Association does not track the number of schools offering this degree model, but it may be a more desirable option for prospective students as more schools offer it.

"In the current employment market and the cost of legal education market, it's terribly important that we do everything we can to address both the need to move faster and reduce cost," says Deanell Reece Tacha, dean of Pepperdine's law school.

Many of these programs have small class sizes of about 30 students and don't tend to attract students coming straight from undergrad. Traditional programs often have class sizes of 100 or more, with some students starting immediately after getting their bachelor's degree.

"Our cohorts for the summer group are older than average and have some post-college experience," says Paul McGreal, dean of the University of Dayton School of Law. "Certainly that's not a requirement, but I think that has been good for students who, having been out in the workplace, are used to the discipline and the work and achieving the work-life balance."

Dayton, like many schools, requires two-year students to start in May and go to school almost year-round. Students at Dayton take between 15 and 18 credit hours during five semesters and a summer term.

"There's not going to be that luxury in the two-year program of having a lighter semester," McGreal says.

With such a packed course load, law school experts say it's important for prospective students to inquire about opportunities for experiential learning. In three-year programs, students usually have two summers free for internships or clerkships. J.D. candidates in two-year programs typically have one summer for experiential learning, but may also be juggling classes during that time.

Smith, who is graduating this spring, says a drawback of his experience at Dayton was having less time for gaining real-world legal experience. He spent his first summer in class; he did an associateship at a law firm during the second half of the following summer.

Even with less time for experiential learning, he was able to secure a job after graduation. He will work as an assistant attorney general in Ohio.

Drexel students will be expected to do a co-op during their second summer, says Roger Dennis, dean of the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel. The co-op would give them hands-on law experience at a law firm, government agency or similar workplace.

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At the University of Dayton, students are required to either work at a legal clinic offered through the school or complete an externship before graduating.

Because two-year models are less common, prospective students should also consider other facts before committing.

"It's important to ask questions about employment outcomes, bar passage and also about the student success rate," says McGreal.

Aspiring J.D. candidates looking at two-year options should not be swayed by the idea of saving money by completing school in less time, says Steven Sedberry, author of "Law School Labyrinth: The Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education."

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He encourages students to consider going to a lower-cost school in three years, which would allow for an additional summer's worth of experience.

"You get two years of a legal education, at some schools, but you pay for three. They charge you basically by the degree. That's where the student as a consumer has to be very careful," he says.

To make it through an intense, accelerated law school program, current student Smith has some encouraging words for his peers considering a similar path. "It takes some stamina and some foresight," he says. "You kind of have to prepare for that."

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