Concerns about the amount of time it takes to get a law degree and the associated costs have resulted in more law schools offering accelerated Juris Doctor programs within the last 10 years.
There are more than a dozen two-year J.D. programs nationwide, allowing law students to complete the required course studies in two years rather than the traditional three. The American Bar Association, which accredits and approves law schools and programs, requires at least 24 months of study to receive a J.D. degree.
Most students who choose a two-year accelerated program, according to some experts, are students who have been out of college for a while, are changing careers, or have jobs and families and want to obtain the degree in the least time possible. They are helping to fuel the popularity of such programs.
Two-year J.D. programs also are popular among foreign lawyers who want to practice law in the U.S. Earning a J.D. from an ABA-accredited law school – a law degree from abroad is insufficient – qualifies them to take the bar exam in the U.S., and a two-year J.D. program enables them to do so a year sooner, notes Jason R. Bent, a law professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Stetson University College of Law in Florida.
“Some jurisdictions permit foreign-educated attorneys to sit for the bar with only a U.S. LL.M. (under certain conditions), but a U.S. J.D. would certainly lead to more options for a foreign-educated attorney,” Bent wrote in an email.
The two-year J.D. program at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University has been “very successful both in terms of having a regular flow of students and the job outcomes,” says Daniel Filler, the law school’s dean and one of the founding faculty members in 2006.
The accelerated program started in 2014 and in recent years has had about 25 students starting the program each summer, Filler says. “It’s a small cohort, but it’s an incredibly socially connected community of law students. Our goal isn’t to have it be any more than 25 students. A small class means they get good attention – not only from faculty but from our career services office and from our other academic support professionals.”
For the program’s 2020 class, the most recent for which data is available, 100% of the graduates had a full-time job – where a J.D. was either required or an advantage – within 10 months of graduation, Filler says. “I can’t promise that every year, but it gives you a sense that this is not an outlier group. They don’t have the worst outcomes. In fact, some years they have the best outcomes.”
2-Year J.D. Programs Have Some Drawbacks
There are some drawbacks to two-year programs, Filler and others note.
“You can’t be editor-in-chief of the law review,” Filler says, explaining that students who want that position are rare and usually want to become professors. “Honestly, if you want to become a professor you should probably be doing the three-year program, anyway. Ninety-nine percent of our students don’t want to be professors. They want to go into a more practical field, and for them, one year on law review is all the credential they need.”
There’s also less opportunity to participate on competitive mock trial teams, Filler adds.
“You can do the trial team, but you won’t be able to do two years of it, so you probably won’t get to be quite as good. You are less likely to be on the national championship team. Sometimes the co-curriculars, like trial team, moot court and law review, only allow accelerated students to do one year. In the three-year program, some students do a second year and have a special experience that is not available to the accelerated students. That’s a price that comes with that acceleration.”
Experts recommend that students in two-year law school programs be focused and organized. They should also look for valuable opportunities that specific programs may provide.
At the Rick J. Caruso School of Law at Pepperdine University in California, students who want to get an accelerated J.D. can earn a master’s degree in dispute resolution, or MDR, at the same time, says Ro W. Lee, associate director for professional education and externships at the law school’s Straus Institute.
Incoming J.D. students “can apply for the accelerated program before they actually start their first day of law school,” Lee says. But “most students do their first year and then they decide to add on their MDR or their certificate program and the accelerated option.”
While a popular benefit of two-year J.D. programs is that they allow students to begin their career faster – and reduce the time of limited earning power by one year – the programs typically require students to attend two summers.
At Drexel, the second summer is used for student co-ops.
“They take nine credits and go work at law firms, corporations or in nonprofits,” Filler says, noting that the work is unpaid. “They work 40 hours a week, there’s a faculty member assigned to work with their supervisor and there’s a class component to it. We don’t want our students to lose the opportunity to have work experience. That is critical for a law school, so we build it in using the co-op.”
At some law schools with an accelerated program, the second summer may mean more classroom instruction.
Programs May Differ in Emphasis
Some law schools with two-year J.D. programs have created their own niches, such as the joint-degree program at Pepperdine.
Another example is the two-year J.D. program at Gonzaga University School of Law in Washington. It began in 2014 as a 90-credit-hour program and has undergone changes since, says Patrick J. Charles, an associate professor of law and library director at the law school.
“Students who have been involved in our program can take a bar exam in any state,” Charles says. “The accelerated students were in a separate cohort for their first two semesters. That was a bit labor intensive for us because at that time we had some faculty who were retiring. We had to dedicate a certain number of our faculty to just the accelerated students and it was sort of off schedule.”
The law school revamped the accelerated program’s curriculum in 2019-2020, focusing more on leadership and business courses, and renamed it the Executive Two-Year J.D. Program.
“We went to the ABA and got a variance from them,” Charles says. “The program still starts in the summer and goes through the six semesters with 90 credits. We put a lot more structure in the curriculum, including 68 credit hours of required classes (and) 22 credit hours where they can take law school elective classes.”
That structure includes a concentration on business and commercial law classes, Charles adds.
“We’ve partnered with our business school at Gonzaga where these students take accounting for lawyers, statistical analysis for lawyers and other classes taught by professors in the business school. We’ve also partnered with the school of leadership where students take six credit hours of leadership.”
After the first semester, students stay together in their cohort but are mainstreamed with other three-year law students for some classes, Charles says. After the third semester, students can choose to decelerate.
“Of the 18 in the first cohort, 13 are still in the accelerated program,” he says. “The other five, for a variety of reasons, have decelerated. They haven’t left law school, they just slowed it down.”
The first cohort of 18 executive J.D. students started in May 2020 and graduates in May, Charles says, adding that law students on the fast track value the flexibility of being able to slow down their pace.
“For the first four years, the people who were applying said they wanted to get out as fast as possible,” he says. “Now it has changed in the past couple of years to, ‘Yeah, I want to get out as fast as possible, but I also like this emphasis on leadership and this emphasis on business and commercial law.’”