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You Must Choose Full- or Part-Time Programs in Law Schools?

published September 24, 2013

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If at all possible, you should attend law school on a full-time basis. You'll save time, because part-time programs typically take four or more years. Also, you'll get more out of your law school education. Part-timers find it difficult to participate in student activities and often have little contact with other students.

I recommend that students attend during the day, even if it means borrowing money to do it. But if you're a nontraditional and have family obligations, this may not be possible. Finally, because part-time programs are usually easier to get into, some of you may have to choose between part-time study and no law school at all.

If you must be a part-timer, your range of options will decline substantially. Only about eighty schools have part-time programs, and some of these are small. Since part-time programs differ considerably from one another, read the catalogs carefully. Before you begin, make sure you know exactly what is expected of you in the program, how long it will take to complete, and how good the placement record is for students who have preceded you.

Big versus Small

In contrast to good liberal arts colleges, law schools have higher student-faculty ratios and, at least in freshman subjects, much larger classes. But some are bigger and more impersonal than others. Georgetown University Law Center, with its 2,050 students and 93 faculty members, has a much different tone than Southern Illinois University, with its 305 students and 29 faculty members. If you feel you need some degree of personal attention and nurturing, you are more likely to get it at a smaller school that advertises itself as providing personal contact. You can't always tell what the tone of the school is from talking to a recruiter or reading a catalog. If you visit, you may be able to see whether small-group interaction is taking place. Ask the rep whether you can sit in on a third-year course or seminar. It should contain more discussion and more student-generated give and take than the typical freshman class. If you have the opportunity to talk to law students, ask them if they ever have trouble getting their questions answered.

Big schools aren't necessarily inferior. In fact, they are superior in most respects. The bigger a school is, the more courses and specialties it can offer. The larger the student body is, the more diverse the social and professional life and the better the contacts and networking possibilities will be. Most of the top law schools are fairly sizeable, and some are among the largest. Georgetown is very well regarded. Harvard has about 1,620 students, Virginia, 1,176, and Columbia 1,017. Recent enrollment figures, faculty sizes, and a variety of other demographic data can be found in the Official Guide.

Clinical Programs

In the 1960s and 1970s, most law schools responded to criticism that legal education had become too abstract and theoretical by creating clinical programs to involve students in real court cases. Some put students to work dealing with the problems of impoverished clients. All clinical programs provide practice in interviewing, counseling, and negotiating. In many states, law students are allowed to perform many legal tasks under the supervision of a member of the Bar.

Clinical programs are a valuable part of every lawyer's education. But they are most important for students who will eventually practice family law, criminal law, or litigation, or who will work in smaller firms or legal aid societies. Since clinical programs vary in quality, you should be sure that the schools on your preferred list have strong programs if you intend to practice in these areas.

Law schools indicate the scope of their clinical offerings in their catalogs. A good program represents a significant commitment of resources, employs specialized teachers, and provides options. Cardozo Law School, for example, offers seven clinics dealing with such subjects as criminal law and appeals, taxation, immigration law, and mediation. It also has extensive internship programs that place students in judicial clerkships, prosecutor's offices, and appellate court administration.

Joint Degree Programs

Unlike a specialized program, which is part of a law school curriculum, a joint degree program is a joint venture. You will study both in the law school and in another graduate college, usually one that is part of the law school's parent university, and you will work toward a law degree and a second advanced degree at the same time. The second degree is sometimes a Ph.D. or another professional degree. Most commonly it is an MPA, for people who want to go into public administration, or an MBA, for people who want to work as lawyers for large corporations. But other joint degree programs exist, and some are quite exotic. Duke University offers a joint degree combined with forestry, and the University of Illinois offers one with veterinary medicine.

A joint degree program will involve you in studying law and other subjects either simultaneously or on an alternating basis. The program will take longer than three years to complete, most often four or five years. But the joint program is designed to take less time than pursuing the two degrees separately.

Joint degree programs are of value for people aiming at legal specialties for which extensive education is appropriate. To understand the legal environment of hospitals, doctors, and drug companies, it's valuable to be both a lawyer and a doctor. There are similar niches for lawyers who are also economists, or scientists, or scholars of foreign cultures and languages. Extra degrees also come in handy if you're applying for a job with a government body or a large corporation. Big organizations sometimes insist on stringent formal qualifications as a way of reducing a large number of job applicants to a manageable number. They often favor applicants who have MB As or MPAs as well as legal credentials.

But joint degree programs aren't for everyone. If you're interested in a traditional business or litigation career, and if you expect to work for a smaller firm or be self-employed, you'll get little benefit from a second degree. Perhaps for this reason, very few joint degrees are actually completed. According to the ABA's Review of Legal Education, although the University of Illinois has nine joint degree programs and awarded about 210 law degrees in 1990, it awarded only eleven joint degrees, ten of them MBAs. The University of Virginia has ten programs, but awarded only twelve joint degrees. Even Harvard awarded only sixteen.

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