John Barrett, a professor at St. John's University School of Law, noted that only a handful of people take advantage of New York's law apprentice program, which allows candidates to sit for the bar exam after one year of law school plus several years of a closely supervised legal apprenticeship.
"Two years might well be enough law school, and it certainly would reduce the cost for students," Barrett said. "I'm skeptical that it would be much utilized, and thus it's a low-risk proposal."
But Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, said many students would skip the 3L year, which would create huge financial losses for law schools.
"Law schools will respond in ways intended to produce more revenue," he warned, possibly bringing in large 1L classes to make up for lost revenue.
Some legal educators warned that the two-year option would create a stratified bar, with two-year students going on to serve lower-income clients and the three-year group taking higher-paying law firm jobs. Large firms might prove reluctant, they argue, to hire students who lack J.D.s.
Zachary Fasman, a partner in Paul Hastings' employment law department, described a mixed reaction from colleagues on that point. However, firms might hire two-year lawyers as apprentices, he said, paying them less than first-year associates and billing for their work at lower rates. As it stands, firms already spend considerable time and money training associates who have spent three years in law school.
"That would be great," Fasman said. "That's a win-win if I ever heard one."
Some legal academics have wondered how much sense Estreicher's proposal makes when employers are demanding more practical skills and real-world experience of recent graduates. However, Joy Radice, professor at University of Tennessee College of Law argued that the option would help break down the wall between traditional doctrinal classes and practical skills courses. The latter typically are relegated to the second or third years.
Audience members weighed in both for and against the idea.
Aikta Wahi, a 2011 NYU Law graduate, said that the small firms and public interest organizations she wanted to work for lacked the time or resources to train new attorneys. Spending two years in school followed by a third year of real-world training with little or no pay might have made her more marketable, she said.