Should Law School at Columbia Be Three Years?

A look at our upper-year curriculum

By David M. Schizer

Fall 2013

Every day, most stories on the front page of the newspaper cover issues that are closely connected to the Columbia Law School curriculum, including financial regulation, national security, marriage equality, tax and budgetary policy, criminal justice, energy policy, human rights, climate change, and intellectual property, to name just a few. At the same time, though, a prominent theme in the news has been the challenges facing the legal profession and the legal academy. There are questions about the job prospects of young lawyers, as well as about how effectively they are trained  in law school. A common question is whether law school should be two years instead of three.

As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yet it is possible to imagine regulatory changes that would allow schools more flexibility to offer programs of varying lengths. Shorter programs might offer a way to reduce the debt loads of graduates who cannot find jobs, which is especially important at schools where a substantial percentage of graduates are in this position. Indeed, President Obama recently observed the cost-reducing advantages of two-year 
programs, and urged schools to think about implementing them. Perhaps regulators will decide to allow this, while requiring the degree to carry a different name, so that potential employers and clients can distinguish two- and three-year programs.

What would these sorts of regulatory changes mean for Columbia? Fortunately, our job placement is extremely strong, so that a third year of tuition, although significant, is not burdensome in the same way. Yet it is still worth considering whether Columbia should have a third year of law school and, if so, what it should look like. This question is the focus of this issue of our magazine.

My view is that the J.D. program at Columbia should be three years, as long as we use the second and third years the right way. These upper years should not be replicas of the first, but with different casebooks. The reason the first year is so challenging and exciting is that students are struggling to master not just new information, but also new skills and insights: learning to “think like a lawyer,” to understand what questions to ask, to focus more precisely on what facts are needed to make a judgment, to recognize the impact of process on outcomes, to present their views more persuasively, and much more. Applying the Socratic method to appellate court opinions is an effective way to teach these skills.

In the upper-year curriculum, we broaden their experience by introducing them to new areas of law—from corporations and 
criminal procedure to federal courts and family law—and also to journal work and other extracurricular experiences. This is quite valuable.

But in my view, if that is all we do, we are not doing enough. The upper-year 
curriculum, therefore, has been the focus of Columbia’s curricular innovation since 2004, when I began serving as dean. We have built on three core strengths of the Law School, which are especially relevant to the third-year curriculum: our connections to the profession; our interdisciplinary expertise; and our strength in comparative and international law.

In pursuing these goals, we recognize that our students have a broad range of interests. They come here to train for different types of leadership. So although these three themes are relevant to every student, no single course of study is right for everyone. To offer a sufficiently wide range of advanced curricular offerings, we have hired 36 new faculty since 2004. At the same time, our J.D. program is smaller than it was when I began. In this way, we have achieved our goal of dramatically reducing our student-faculty ratio: 8:1 compared to 13:1 in 2004–05, a reduction of 39 percent. This additional capacity—financed by our record fundraising in recent years—has allowed us to explore an exciting range of new curricular initiatives for upper-year students.

These advanced offerings are open to both second- and third-year students. Yet if law school were only two years, students could take advantage of them only in a very limited way. It wouldn’t be possible to pursue more than a handful, if any, given the extensive list of traditional courses that students also should take. With a third year, moreover, students who take an advanced offering in their second year can develop a clearer sense of their interests, and then can use their third year to build on it further. As a result, a two-year legal education could not offer students the same rigorous immersion in these initiatives that becomes possible in three years.

Our Connections to the Legal Profession

A central focus of this curricular innovation has been our close connections to the legal profession, which enable us to provide a vital bridge between theory and practice. We have developed a wide range of new intensive courses and programs that combine legal doctrine with close study of the surrounding business, regulatory, institutional, political, or social settings within which law develops. These courses also expose our students to “real-world” documents, transactions, or legal, business, or policy actors, and field research. Covering a wide variety of subjects, these offerings enable students to see 
firsthand the many different roles lawyers can play, while also sharpening different analytical, theoretical, and practical skills. 

For example, our Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security fields more than a dozen advanced offerings and draws on the deep expertise of a number of 
faculty members who have worked in senior national security positions in the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department. Although the setting is different, we offer comparably deep and rigorous instruction in our Charles Evans Gerber Transactional Studies Program and our many advanced business law offerings. 
We have a number of courses that are taught jointly by full-time faculty and expert practitioners, as a way to harness the complementary expertise of both. 
Students can also choose from a broad range of externships and clinics. In addition to our offerings in Morningside Heights, second- and third-year students can spend a semester participating in our Externship on the Federal Government in Washington, D.C.

Our Interdisciplinary Expertise

Our upper-year curriculum also draws on the resources of one of the world’s great research universities. Many members of our faculty have Ph.D.s, and we have a growing number of joint initiatives with other schools. For example, the Richard Paul Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy is a research and teaching 
partnership with Columbia Business School. We also have a new J.D.-M.B.A. program that awards both degrees in three years (instead of four) and has inspired the two schools to create courses taught jointly by both faculties. Our Center for Climate Change Law has close ties to the 
scientists and economists at Columbia’s Earth Institute. Likewise, our Center for Public Research and Leadership works with Teachers College and Columbia Business School to train education professionals.

Our International and Comparative Law Expertise

Because many of the most pressing challenges of our time are global in scope, enhancing this institutional strength is more vital than ever. We offer an array of courses in comparative and international law. Because of our vibrant LL.M. program, approximately one-quarter of our students come from outside the United States. These international students extend the global impact of the Law School. For example, LL.M. alumni now include the president of the Republic of Georgia, the chief justices of Japan and Ireland, and a former prime minister of Italy, as well as prominent leaders of industry, the bench, the bar, and the legal academy throughout the world.

While the focus of a large cohort of faculty is predominantly comparative or international, a further strength of our School is that the international and 
comparative perspective is not limited to this group of specialists. Most of our faculty engage with comparative and international issues in their research and teaching, and this continues to be a particular source of Columbia Law School’s strength and influence in an increasingly interconnected world.

To build on these strengths, we field a broad array of regional centers and programs on European, Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Indian law. We have also partnered with leading universities all over the world to enable third-year students to study abroad. Last year, we launched a new program in which professors from other parts of the world join us to spend two to four weeks co-teaching with full-time faculty. This short-term visitors program enhances the international expertise of our full-time faculty, who learn from their co-teachers, while also enriching a dozen offerings with a sophisticated comparative or international perspective. So whether our students spend their second and third year in Morningside Heights or in another part of the world, they develop valuable expertise about global dimensions of the law.

With this three-pronged strategy—enhancing our connections to the profession, our interdisciplinary expertise, and the international scope of our curriculum—we ensure that our upper-year curriculum is rigorous and fulfilling, and that our 
students are better prepared for the wide range of opportunities awaiting them when they leave us. In so doing, we advance our School’s core mission: to train leaders across the world who will strengthen the rule of law and leave an enduring legacy of freedom, justice, and prosperity for generations to come.

I invite you to learn more about some of the innovative and unique opportunities available to upper-year students at Columbia Law School. In the pages that follow, we highlight a number of courses, clinics, programs, and initiatives that reflect the three themes I discussed above.