Why Law School Should Be an Undergraduate Program

In most parts of the world, lawyers are formally trained in an undergraduate degree program. The Bachelor of Law (LL.B), is also an accelerated three-year curriculum. In the United States it takes over twice as long. First you need a 4-year undergraduate degree in any subject—a gratuitous requirement, as there is no such thing as a “pre-law” program like medicine. After that, you must follow a 3-year graduate degree track, leading to a Jurisprudence Doctorate (JD), but the JD is still just a “first” law degree. It teaches the exact same courses as the foreign undergraduate programs.

So why not move it back to where it belongs, as an undergraduate subject? Because U.S. law schools have been turned into graduate professional schools.

These graduate professional schools take basic undergraduate subjects and concepts and exaggerate them into more formal abstractions to look “professional” and conform to university academic culture by emulating university research practices—for example, cross-citations.

This has nothing to do with actually training lawyers or building strong leaders—it promotes conformity, consensus, and groupthink to create a self-perpetuating institution that prioritizes its own survival. The professional graduate law school specifically serves this objective above all others. I’m not saying that the United Kingdom’s model solves all problems, but it solves two of the biggest: time and cost.

So how is it that we can train nuclear, electrical, aerospace, petroleum, and chemical engineers in a 4-year undergraduate program, and then license them as a professional engineer, but the subject called “law” takes almost twice as long? How is it that Israel trains its lawyers in a first-class undergraduate college program, and then their college graduates are both qualified in Israel, and are also qualified to take the New York Bar Exam immediately?

Law schools are accredited by something called the “Bar Association”—and the American Association of Law Schools, which is a trade group run by insiders from academia—that licenses lawyers, asserts professional disciplinary authority, issues exams, and oversees and “certifies” law schools, their curriculum, and degree requirements. The Bar has a “lock” on the entire legal trade and supply chain—it is a classic monopoly, and this monopoly can reach more effectively into a dedicated graduate school that is separated institutionally from the university. It could never reach down to the same extent or manner into an undergraduate academic program that issues an academic degree. The law industry and Bar Association can’t come in and control a BA degree program in a college—perhaps that is among the reasons Oxford has a “BA Jurisprudence.” But the Bar can control a hived-off and regulated law school sitting in a building that it oversees for accrediting purposes, issuing its own terminal degree—the JD is neither an actual doctorate, nor is it a step toward a Ph.D., like the MA.[1]

If the law were integrated into undergraduate education, free from the monopolistic control of the Bar, it would likely have a profound effect on student intellectual independence and the overall quality of legal education. Why? Because an independent, liberal, non-professional education that is de-linked from explicit industry control and influence would leave aspiring students to study more as independent scholars and develop their ownership of what law means. I’m thinking here of Saul Bellow’s excellent insight from his preface to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind concerning higher education, where he recommends that the “backflow” of society, meaning its controversies, politics, special interests, and social contentions, be kept off campus as much as possible, so that students have the latitude and freedom to concentrate on developing their own powers of mind. The professional graduate law school does just the opposite: it invites the “backwater” in to class, and turns it into legal cause. This creates the illusion that law has distinct professional utility, separate from the other disciplines. This is reinforced by legal “research” which establishes the law professor as an academic authority, and law school as an academic institution. It’s all a terrible misperception as to what law really is, and what it is for.

What lawyers must understand to become true bearers of an ethical, aspirational social standard—and to be more effective, in practical affairs—is not law per se, but law’s deep antecedents; the principles that slowly evolved into what we call law. That includes history above all else. It includes the broader humanities and science, but it also includes business—especially accounting, statistics, decision science, finance, and general management. Indeed, if we look at law services and the judiciary as a monopoly business system—which it currently is—it is among the most economically inefficient, and dysfunctional. It is ripe for restructuring, or a “hostile takeover” from its shareholders—i.e., citizens. This is also a call for effective legal deregulation, and true market liberalization.

Professional law schools separate law from its source: you.[2] They act like an industrial apple orchard firm, plucking the fruit from the trees, carting it away in baskets, and then sorting the fruit into sets and classifications, and claiming those sets are meaningful representations of the tree. This is done without any perception as to how the tree is anchored, rooted, and nourished, and who really owns the land, the sky, the sun, and the rain. This is also why law is best taught as an undergraduate subject. You are generally still more independent, less conflicted with life’s complexities, and more likely to let “law” become part of all the other things you do when your own “roots and branches”—and wings—are still forming, in the wild, and not in service to a professional orchard manager, corporate harvester, packager and distributor called the Bar Association.

Law should be an undergraduate program because all the legal principles than can actually be taught in a university can be fully transmitted in a BA or BS degree format. The rest of legal learning, including all the necessary things outside law itself, must come from practice and experience; that means getting out of school, and getting to work.

[1] The law Bar also “throttles” its labor capacity, in order to keep new recruits in school as long as possible, and out of the job market. The Bar acts as a lobbyist for its law firms, by pushing training costs back onto the law student, thereby subsidizing law firm training costs–and in the U.S. there is also no formal intern program. The average law graduation age in the U.S. is an astonishing 28, and it is climbing. This is in contradistinction to the engineer, architect, biologist, commercial pilot, or naval officer, who has been working, earning, and building a career already for six years or more, and solving complex problems, managing people, interacting with customers, suppliers, regulators, and often in foreign countries. Some are commanding war ships, squadrons, and groups in combat, while law students are sitting in libraries. This profound inefficiency and human waste in our nation’s law schools, is one that law students, for some reason, just accept, and indeed are conditioned to accept, by facing application games like “ranking;” from the handcuffs of tuition debt, and by the Bar’s own licensing exam, which predicts very little, especially in ethical and professional attitude. Less than 4 percent of practicing lawyers are under the age of 30, and by this time, their careers may be subject to more willingness to cooperate, comply, and compromise to catch up, after they lost nearly a decade in school. See “Scholarly Restraints? ABA Accreditation and Legal Education,” 19 Cardozo L. Rev. 2091 (1998). The Bar monopoly problem was otherwise stated this way by one law professor: “I tell no secrets when I mention that modern American law schools are obliged to be part of an accreditation cartel, operated by the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools, in conspiracy with the state bars. The central mission of this cartel, conducted under the cover of enforcing supposed educational standards, is to increase lawyers’ profits by driving up the price of entry into the profession, which restricts the supply of lawyers.” John H. Langbein, Sterling Professor of Law and Legal History, Yale Law School, in “Blackstone, Litchfield, and Yale: The Founding of the Yale Law School,” in History of the Yale Law School, Anthony T. Kronman, editor. Yale, like all earlier American law schools, originally awarded an undergraduate law degree, the LL.B.

[2] By “you,” I imply a natural law or “Volksgeist” and this may also reflect to some degree, an argument made by Oliver Wendell Holmes concerning self-preference. See https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2483&context=wmlr. See also The Common Law, Holmes, HUP 1963. The concept of “personalized law” which challenges legal uniformity, may speak to this kind of legal philosophy. See Personalized Law: Different Rules for Different People, by Ben-Shahar and Porat, OUP, 2021. Their thesis of course should imply a challenge to traditional law training as well, and whether its uniformity and regulatory standardization—U.S. law schools all teach the same subjects from the same cases with the same books under the same ABA oversight—is therefore subject to “personalized law training.”

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image


  • Matthew G. Andersson

    Matthew G. Andersson is a corporation founder and former CEO, management consultant and author of the upcoming book “Legally Blind,” concerning law education. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Private Equity, the National Academy of Sciences, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize report by the Chicago Tribune. He has been a guest on CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Public Television, and the BBC, and received the Silver Anvil award from the Public Relations Society of America. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, and Connecticut General Assembly concerning higher education. He attended Yale College where he studied Russian language under department chairman Alexander Schenker; the University of Texas at Austin, Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he worked with economist and White House national security advisor W.W. Rostow. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in Barcelona, Spain and the U.S. He is the author of a text on law and economics used at Northwestern University, DePaul University College of Law, and McGill University Faculty of Law. He has lived and worked in Russia and Eastern Europe for a Fortune 100 technology company in strategic joint ventures. He is a jet command pilot, flight instructor, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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6 thoughts on “Why Law School Should Be an Undergraduate Program

  1. Interesting essay. Whatever the best process is, it should include a 2 year internship within a law firm or an organisation that trains budding lawyers in the practicalities of legal practice. Only thereafter should demanding Board exams take place. Many countries do it this way and the graduate is then better prepared to represent clients in court. I went through such a process and can highly recommend a 2 year in-house training.

    1. Could you be so kind to indicate in what country you interned? What did you find distinctive about the intern program, compared to academic law training? Are there subjects in your view that especially benefit from a joint academic-intern structure? Thank you.

  2. “How is it that Israel trains its lawyers in a first-class undergraduate college program, and then their college graduates are both qualified in Israel, and are also qualified to take the New York Bar Exam immediately?”

    They are qualified to take the New York Bar Exam immediately for no reason other than the State of New York says that they are.

    We can speculate as to why the State of New York decided to issue such a decree, but one needs to remember that (a) a state can permit anyone whom it damn well pleases to take it’s bar exam.

    And (b) in the past, most states permitted one to apprentice with a lawyer instead of going to law school. Remember that law schools are largely a product of the 20th Century, and that the apprentice-trained lawyers were common up through the mid 20th Century. Justice Stanley Forman Reed, who served on the US Supreme Court from 1938 to 1957, is the last SCOTUS justice to not have graduated from law school.

    But the only prerequisite to sitting for a state’s bar exam is having met whatever prerequisites that the state wishes to impose. Now passing it may be a different story, but a state could literally let *anyone* take its bar exam if it so decided. And it would be interesting to compare the pass rates of the Israeli grads to those of ABA-accredited US law schools…

  3. An excellent article. The whole business of mandatory law school (approved by the ABA) followed by state licensing is a textbook case of special interest legislation meant to raise barriers to entry into a profession. What is taught in law schools could be taught in undergrad courses. In fact, everything that’s taught in law schools could be learned elsewhere and most of what lawyers need to know is learned on the job, not in classrooms. I’d do away with the law school mandate, government licensing, and unauthorized practice prohibitions. The cost of legal services would fall without any decline in quality.

    1. It’s actually worse than this — the ABA was created for the purpose of reducing the number of lawyers so as to increase lawyer income and legal costs. While the ABA has actually run afoul of the Sherman Act and then violated its consent decree (see: https://www.justice.gov/archive/atr/public/press_releases/2006/216804.htm), I fail to understand why the whole thing isn’t a textbook definition of an illegal monopoly.

      Notwithstanding that, much of what was taught in law school fifty years ago were things that any lawyer needed to know, particularly in the era before computers. The only way to find a case was with its citation (which book and starting on which page) and then there were the Shepard’s books that told you if that case had been reversed or expanded on or a bunch of other things — with what really were nothing more than hieroglyphics followed by more citations.

      As to statutes, one had to first know where on the bookshelf to look (each state organized its statutes differently) and then go through the chapter indexes and hope that you got lucky. And *then* check the pocket pack in the back of the book to make sure that the legislature hadn’t revised the statute. Compare that to today where I can type “Massachusetts Blasphemy Statute” into DuckDuckGo (yes, the Commonwealth still has one) and instantly be told it’s 272 MGL 36 — and get the full text with another keystroke.

      While the APA says use Bluebook and hence I use the archaic book & page citations in my professional writing because I am supposed to, I can’t remember the last time I actually used it to look up a case. No, you type in the name and if you can’t remember that, what the case is about (e.g. abortion decision) and that will give you the 597 U.S. 215 which means that the case starts on page 215 of the 594th volume of the US Reports.

      Which was important to know in the 1970s and isn’t today…

      So one then does have to ask the question of what it is that law schools spend three years teaching, and much of it is left-wing drivel such as Critical Race Theory. If law schools actually taught what the law was, there wouldn’t be a need for the bar prep courses that actually do this.

      The cost of legal services would definitely fall if this foolishness were eliminated, although I argue that competition would definitely improve quality. One of the fun aspects of advising undergrads is going with them when they get dragged into court and my view of the criminal defense bar was that a couple dozen bus drivers could do a better job — the bus drivers would at least have to show up sober…

    2. Agreed. There’s absolutely no reason a law degree could not be an undergraduate degree like architecture or engineering. And have the law degree go back to being an LLB — the change to calling it a “Juris Doctor” degree was nothing more than ego, very akin to the DEd awarded to posers like Jill “Call me Doctor” Biden. [If you really want a doctorate degree in education, go get an actual PhD. If for some reason you want a doctorate in law, knock yourself out and get an LLM and then an SDJ.)

      If states insist on law school being a graduate degree, two years is more than enough — the third year of law school is widely regarded as an unnecessary joke, but is a sacred cow to law school faculty as most of them only teach second and third year classes.

      Some of the best advice I received before starting law school was from a legend of the Texas trial and appellate bar (the late James Kronzer): “Always remember, law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer.”

      He was absolutely right. Yes, law school can teach you the law (although these days even that is debatable given the politization of law school faculties and the fact that most law professors have never actually practiced law). But you learn the skills necessary to be a lawyer and have a successful practice by working with other lawyers and actually doing the work.

      Ideally, I’d structure legal education and licensing like they do architecture. To become a licensed architect, you have to have an architecture degree (which often takes people 5 years to complete because of all the prerequisites), and then you have to work an apprenticeship/internship under a licensed architect for a year.

      *Then* you are eligible to take the exam (and unlike the increasingly dumbed-down Bar exam, the architect’s exam is so tough that very few people pass all the parts on their first try).

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