Advocates for Starving Advocates

Cut Classes, Cut Costs

ELIMINATING 3L WOULD HELP STUDENTS MANAGE COSTS

Make Law Schools Earn a Third Year, a thoughtful piece in last week’s New York Times, discussed potential law school reforms that could make life a little easier for their recent graduates. The idea of an option to take the bar exam after two years struck me as a no-brainer while I was studying for the bar this past summer, relearning areas of the law that I’d forgotten since first year, or coming across frequently tested material for the first time. The article’s authors, Daniel B. Rodriguez and Samuel Estreicher, correctly point to the benefits of such a plan, among the most compelling being the reduction of sky-high costs for law students by shaving off a full year’s tuition. Needless to say, the legal world needs more creative innovations like this to help students and recent graduates limit debt.

We all know that tuition and living expenses during law school routinely exceed $60,000. But the expenses for recent graduates and budding attorneys don’t end with a J.D. They continue to add up at a time when access to funding (i.e. student loan payments) begins to dry up. Application fees for the bar exam vary, but most states require recent graduates to pay hundreds of dollars. Then the same graduates regularly drop over $3,000 on bar review courses. If test-takers want to use laptops, the required software can cost more than $100. If someone wants to take two bar exams, say in New York and Massachusetts, that’s two bar application fees, the bar review course (with higher tuition for two-state programs), extra supplemental materials for the additional state, and inexplicably, two payments to the same software company for the same exam-taking software. After successfully passing an exam, active bar membership fees become due. Add to these expenses other costs that are practically essential to new attorneys seeking to establish themselves, such as bar association memberships, research access, and malpractice insurance, and the bill gets pretty high, especially for the 50 percent of recent law graduates who are unemployed out of school. Cutting tuition rates for law school is a key component to any debt-reduction strategy for recent law students. But we shouldn’t forget how quickly that the litany of smaller costs required to start participating in the legal profession add up and impose burdens on the backs of the legal community’s youngest, and most underemployed members.

As Rodriguez and Estreicher point out, making 3L optional would also force schools to make it more attractive if they want to retain enrollment. This could lead to more practical, skills-based coursework for the third year. It would also keep students enrolled and receiving loan payments at a time when that cash flow could help divert the expenses of obtaining a license. It is in these lean months — studying for the bar, unemployed (and essentially unemployable with no license and no free time) — that grads can fall prey to private lenders to help cover living expenses and the cost of bar prep.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Cohen is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, a firm of small business attorneys in Boston, and a 2012 graduate of the Northeastern University School of Law. Email him at jcohen@bostonmicrolaw.com.