Mihaly: Law school in two years? We’re doing it.

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Marc Mihaly, who is the president and dean of Vermont Law School.

In late August, President Obama called on law schools to reform by considering adoption of a curriculum that would train lawyers in two years instead of the traditional three years.

At Vermont Law School, we’re already doing it.

A few months ago in May, Vermont Law School started its first class of students in a two-year, accelerated juris doctor (JD) program. Twelve highly motivated students joined us in reforming both the time and cost involved in acquiring a legal education. In addition to graduating in just two years with a JD degree, these students will do so with an incredible cost advantage.

Of the more than 200 accredited law schools nationwide, there are only a handful of schools in addition to Vermont Law School with programs that allow students to complete their degree in less than three years. Our difference?

Vermont Law School is the only school in the nation to offer a two-year degree at two-thirds the cost of a traditional three-year degree.

We are not only reducing the overall cost of tuition, but also reducing the time it takes to earn the degree. Students don’t have to spend a third year with living expenses (which average $20,000 to $30,000 per year). More importantly, they re-enter the workforce sooner, reducing the earnings lost while in law school.

These students in the accelerated JD also receive a robust educational experience. They can specialize in Environmental Law, or design their own concentration in Energy Law, Dispute Resolution, or International Law. They can also choose to spend a summer semester as a student-attorney in our clinical programs.

So, why did Vermont Law School, the nation’s top-ranked leader in environmental law for the last 16 of 23 years, make this change long before the call to action from President Obama?

Ultimately, we believe that law students today want the three O’s: options, opportunity and outcomes. The accelerated JD degree meets this test in several ways.


First, we already had a strong summer program in which faculty from across the nation and world come to VLS to teach highly specialized courses in our top-ranked environmental law program. In addition, our experiential and clinical programs, which give students real-world experiences, also operate year-round. The needs of our clients don’t take a summer break, so we built our clinical programs to operate with students year-round.

Most importantly, our faculty understands that change, not tradition, is the future of legal education. More than two years ago, Vermont Law School began a distance-learning program for our master’s and LLM programs. We just graduated our first cohort of these students, and anticipate the largest fall semester class since the program began. The program launched with courses developed almost exclusively by our traditional, residential faculty.

Ultimately, we believe that law students today want the three O’s: options, opportunity and outcomes. The accelerated JD degree meets this test in several ways.

Giving students an option to start when they want and complete their degree in two years is one way to help them meet their own personal goals. It also matches the reality of student’s lives today. Why should anyone who wants to enter law have to wait until late summer of any given year to do so? Both the timing and duration of law school is an artifact of the 20th century, and has to change. In the coming year, we hope to allow two-year JD students to start in either the summer or the fall, making our program the most flexible in the nation.

We’re also confident that this first class will find plenty of opportunities for meaningful careers. Anyone who can fit three years of law school into two years is highly motivated, and it is our expectation that employers will want to hire them.

Finally, these students will be able to seek careers outside of big law, and in the areas of public interest, government, or general practice because they won’t have the debt that otherwise would limit their career choices. We are committed to deliver a professional degree that makes these choices possible.

A two-year law degree isn’t for everyone, but we agree with President Obama that it makes an important step in making a legal education more affordable and accessible. At Vermont Law School, we are committed to developing a generation of leaders who use the power of law to make a difference in their communities and the world, and we think a two-year JD degree is just one way to achieve that goal.

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  • patrick cashman

    “Hi dude. Im yur lawyer. I only spent 2/4 the time in skool that other guy did. I feel reel gud about yur case. LOL.”

    • Marty Marshal

      The “other guy,” who did the traditional three years, spent 6 semesters in law school. The “2/4” guy (and if you’re talking about years you are wrong because it would then be two out of three years)..anyway, the “2/4” guy spent 6 semesters in law school. The accelerated track is the same amount of time, its just crammed together – 6 semesters in row, rather than summers not in school.

  • Ann Meade

    Yeah, more lawyers faster!

  • Linda Quackenbush

    This would make complete sense especially since the new healthcare plan gravitates towards medical care that doesn’t require a doctorate. highly trained & educated Specialty doctors are running out of Vermont with the implementation of Green Mountain care! Tort reform will have a lot more medical malpractice cases with the implementation of cheaper care. We wouldn’t want to have a backlog in the courts now would we…

  • Linda Quackenbush

    I stand corrected…THERE IS NO TORT REFORM IN VERMONT! It’s makes for my point tenfold…”More lawyers for more medical malpractice cases with the implementation of HealthCare Reform..”

  • Mark Sciarrotta

    Kudos to Dean Mihaly and VLS for, once again, bringing on the innovative thinking and action that better serves those with the desire to improve themselves, their community, and the legal system. An accelerated JD won’t be the right fit for all aspiring lawyers, but it provides a new opportunity for, among others, those who want to jumpstart a second career, augment a first, or simply fufill a deferred dream, all in less time, at a lower opportunity cost, and with a reduced tuition spend. An obvious win-win.

  • Grant Reynolds

    “The first year they scsre you to death, the second year they work you to death, and the third year they bore you to death.”

    I got that my first day in law school, in September of 1957 at Columbia Law School. It proved to be totally accurate. The third year was mostly a waste. My daughter followed me to Columbia in 1989. She had pretty much the same experience. Her summers may hsve been more productive, since they were spent in legal intenrships. I put out traffic counters on Vermont back roads for the State Highway Department. It was an experience I treasure, for I saw all of Vermont in detail, and in those far off days I made enough in the summer to pay my law school tuition – $1000 a year.

    Ins short, 2 years, including two summers, is ample for the education that law schools provide. They have become more and more academic and farther and farther from the real world of law practice. The sooner the student becomes a working lawyer the better educated for the profession she will be. That doesn’t mean no law school is the best; but two full years is ample. Starting in June after college graduation is a worthwhile feature, too. Why spend a whole summer doing something non-law-related? If a college graduate has a job waiting in the business world she has a few days or weeks before she goes to work. Law school should be the same.

    In my opinion, VLS is on the right track.

    • Linda Quackenbush

      I was sued for a last year just before the election for a 2010 fender bender with absolutely no damage to the plaintiff’s car and she was awarded $50,000 dollars(out of court settlement) for a “soft tissue” neck strain! Personally I wanted to go to trial but I wasn’t given that opportunity! My lawyer “claimed” that I didn’t have enough limits on my very reputable insurance company and that if we went to trial it could cost over $1 million dollars! I was completely shocked! I then asked if Vermont had Tort reform and she said that Vermont didn’t!!! Wow.. What a market for ambulance chasers and undereducated lawyers!

      The interrogatory was torture. As the defendant, I was put thru the mill and quite honestly criminals are treated better! They wanted personal information about my children, education, financials, health history etc. Quite honestly I felt like I was being interrogated because of my political views! I did some research and lots of lobbying going on within Montpelier to keep TORT reform out of business…Just saying watch your political point of view. There’s a lot of people who don’t like honest people… Know who your friends are…

  • Bill Ross

    I have a better idea. Avoid law school altogether.

  • Robert Sand

    This summer I taught criminal law to the 12 students enrolled in VLS’s new accelerated JD program. My initial skepticism about condensing a required first year course into the confines of the summer semester quickly gave way to an appreciation for the opportunity presented to teach a smaller group of highly motivated students. Not only did the AJD students quickly bond with each other, but their evident friendship, trust, and mutual support translated into a classroom dynamic rich with interesting questions and the free flow of creative ideas. In this more intimate classroom setting there was no place for a student to hide. The students came to class well prepared and fully ready to embrace and challenge the controversial doctrines of criminal law. The high caliber of the final exams written by these students reflects their motivation and the value of this accelerated approach. In my judgment, the AJD program was a huge success.

  • raymond royce

    I totally agree with the comments of Mr. Reynolds. I am a graduate of VLS (79) and found the third year mostly a waste of time and money. I also discovered that summer school at VLS was terrific with the quality of professors, small classes provided an incredible opportunity to learn and enjoy the experience. I took classes from Frank Sanders of Harvard, the father of ADR and Louis Henkin from Columbia on the Constitution and Foreign Affairs. Great stuff. I also worked for VT DOT building and repairing bridges in the summer which provided valuable insight into construction practices which helps me even today in my practice of representing contractors and owners on public projects and procurement issues. So making it a two year deal is a good move. I am sure other schools will follow down this path. The sooner one starts to practice law, the better it is for the lawyer and the client. Despite all the law school talk about clinics and getting young lawyers ready for the real world, there is no substitute for actually doing it. Kudos to VLS in making this decision.

  • Christopher Cooper

    I think most people are not understanding the accelerated JD program. It is no LESS ‘time’ then the normal program. Indeed, the ABA requires X number of credits to become a lawyer. It is simply that the AJD program crams the same number of credits into 2 years. The obvious question is…if the AJD program is the same number of credits, how can it be so much cheaper? The answer is that VLS charges AJD students less PER CREDIT than students under the normal JD program. But how does the school manage this?? If the AJD program is no less schooling, how is it so much cheaper?

    Answer? Because it is only available to a select few (the students who are deemed capable of doing the same work in less time), whose tuition ‘reduction’ is subsidized by the higher PER CREDIT tuition charged to “normal” JD students?

    Can anyone say that this situation is an economic benefit to most students?

    Ultimately, if VLS can afford to charge less per credit for tuition, then it should do so. For all students. Now.

    If not, then it shouldn’t advertise this clever ruse as some kind of responsible reaction to the ridiculous inflation in the cost of legal education. Please don’t be so easily confused by this shell game.