Sunday, May 25, 2014

Associate’s degree in law?

Jeff Winger (photo by Alan Light)
Attorney Jeff Winger got caught.  After he graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and launched a successful career at a law firm, the Colorado Bar Association found out about his fake bachelor’s degree.  The punishment: disbarment.  The light at the end of the tunnel: go back to college and earn a post-J.D. bachelor’s degree and be readmitted to the bar.

When Winger arrived on campus, one of the professors—a former drunk-driving client of Winger’s—asked: “I thought you had a bachelor’s from Columbia?”  Winger responded: “And now I have to get one from America.  And it can’t be an email attachment.”

Jeff Winger is just a fictional character on NBC’s amazing but recently canceled television show Community (DVDs available here), but his situation got me thinking: aren’t law degrees really just associate’s degrees? 

This isn’t a post about law school reform.  Let’s assume that the typical law school course should be kept exactly as-is: a self-contained study of a discrete legal topic (e.g., contracts, substantive criminal law, civil procedure, etc.), where the students teach themselves the material before class and the professor informally tests their knowledge through the Socratic Method in class.  Then the students take a single exam at the end of the semester that determines 100 percent of their grade.

With educational reform off the table, this leaves me with two observations.  First, the last (third) year of law school is pure silliness.  I realized that about sixteen years ago after only one semester in law school, which is why I cut my legal education short and graduated in 2 ½ years.  Today, nearly everyone who is not dependent on law school tuition revenue admits that the third year of law school is fruitless.  Even some professors agree.  Even the President agrees.  Even some law schools agree, and now offer students the option of earning the J.D. in two years instead of three.

Second, why couldn’t a smart high school graduate go straight to law school and excel in school and in the profession, like Community’s Jeff Winger did?  It is true that the bachelor’s degree can serve as a sort of weeding-out mechanism for law school admissions committees, but that’s the most that it does.  The degree itself doesn’t teach anything that is needed for law school, because nothing is needed for law school.  Unlike medical schools, law schools do not require even a single prerequisite course, and will accept candidates with degrees in any field, including packaging (Michigan State), winemaking (UC-Davis), bakery management (Kansas State), video game design (USC), and even puppetry (Connecticut or West Virginia).  (Forget the puppetry and video games; sign me up for the winemaking.)

And do law schools really use the college degree to weed out students anyway?  This law school, for example, will not only accept you if you have a mere 2.0 GPA from any college in any major, but will also give you up to a $30,000 annual scholarship!  I think there is a strong case to be made that if a student earned only a 2.0 GPA in college—especially with today’s rampant grade-inflation on college campuses—then he or she didn’t really “go to college,” except perhaps in the Animal House-John Belushi-sense of the phrase.  In this case, college fails even to serve the weeding-out function.

And even for the law schools that do attempt to use college to weed out candidates, couldn’t the college degree simply be replaced with another measure?  Why not rely exclusively on the LSAT score?  Or LSAT score and high school grades or class rank?  Sure, there is a variation in quality between high schools, but isn’t that true for colleges, too?  And wouldn’t the future consumers of legal services be better served if a law school admitted a smart, rational, logical student with a 160 LSAT and no college degree, as opposed to a student who could only muster a 140 LSAT after stumbling through five years of college on his way to graduating with a 2.0 GPA?  Without a doubt, the answer is yes.

So, with a useless third year—a year that has already been eliminated by some law schools—and with no specific, college-level prerequisites whatsoever, isn’t the law degree really just an associate’s degree in faux-doctorate clothing?  Other than loss of prestige, are there any drawbacks to formally acknowledging this and turning the J.D. into an associate’s degree?  Specifically, would it flood the market with unqualified law school graduates?  After all, more people would pursue legal studies if law school only cost $90,000 for two years of tuition instead of $135,000 for three years of tuition, and didn’t require four years of college tuition before even setting foot in a law school class.

First, unqualified law school graduates are already upon us in droves.  For example, recent grads of the prestigious and highly-ranked University of Texas Law School—all of whom also have bachelor’s degrees, by the way—only passed the bar exam at a dismal rate of 59 percent.  This percentage is from a small sample size of bar exam takers, but graduates of many less-prestigious schools are consistently passing the bar at similar or even lower rates.

Second, this already-existing problem of unqualified law school graduates could be easily corrected by making the study of law more rigorous, regardless of whether a law school calls its degree an associate’s or a doctorate.  If they wanted, law schools could require that their students demonstrate a higher level of understanding and greater mastery of the law, legal reasoning, and legal writing before they dole out their degrees.  This would benefit not only the legal services-consuming public, but also the future lawyers and even the law students who ultimately can’t cut the mustard.  For example, who would be better off: (a) the student who stumbles through four years of college, followed by three years of law school, only to flunk the bar exam after being saddled with $200,000-plus in student loan debt; or (b) the student who is held to a higher standard from the get-go and is flunked out after only one semester in an associate’s degree program?

So it’s settled: schools should offer an Associate of Arts in Law (AAL), and states should allow graduates of such programs to sit for the bar exam.  Maybe Jeff Winger’s Greendale Community College will be the first to jump on my bandwagon.  


  1. Wow. Strongly disagree. A undergraduate degree with a foundation in logic, ethics, government, and the classics is quite necessary to becoming a skilled attorney.

    1. Anon: we know for sure that those courses are not "necessary," as many attorneys do extremely well without ever having any such courses in college. As far as what courses are the most helpful, I think a stronger case could be made for economics, statistics, and accounting -- all of which teach logical reasoning and critical thinking.

      But this debate just proves the point: no one course or set of courses are necessary. Also, when a degree -- here, the J.D. -- can be completed in two years and doesn't require a single college-level prerequisite, well, that sounds like an associate's degree to me.

      I think of the four areas you posted, however, logic is the most useful, although logical reasoning is inherent in many different areas of study outside of formal logic. The classics and government probably couldn't hurt. Maybe you're right, and they could even be helpful -- though I'm not sure, as I never took a course in either area. Finally, I wonder if ethics could actually be detrimental, as legal ethics are often quite different than ethics / morals in the larger sense.