Starting next year, Gonzaga University Law School will make it easier for students to get a law degree in two years instead of three.
Announced Monday by GU Law School Dean Jane Korn, the change is a reaction to the continuing decline in law school enrollments nationwide.
“We’re the first law school in the Northwest taking this step,” she said.
She said the goal is to speed some students through law school, but also help boost enrollment at GU, where this year’s first-year group is one of the smallest ever.
While some legal professionals have suggested changing the current three-year requirement for law school, that option won’t become widespread as long as the American Bar Association maintains its current requirement of a minimum of 83 credit hours. That requirement typically results in six academic terms.
The GU program will give students the chance to take three terms per year, instead of two as most law programs do.
Fewer than 12 U.S. law schools have started or announced an accelerated two-year program, the ABA says.
Korn said GU law school decided to add an accelerated option because it will help students cut their law school costs and launch them on a legal career faster.
“We believe this (option) is the wave of the future,” she said. “Many more universities are going to be doing this.”
Korn said law school faculty this fall canvassed first-year students, asking how many would have been interested in the two-year choice. “The majority of our students said they would be interested,” Korn said.
The program doesn’t reduce the number of hours GU law graduates must finish.
The condensed program will also leave GU law school grads with the same tuition bill as those taking the three-year program.
But Korn noted the condensed program saves the cost of housing during a student’s final year in school.
The school’s website estimates the total cost per year to attend GU law is $53,049, which includes roughly $14,000 for living expenses.
GU’s traditional three-year program will continue for students preferring that option, which provides opportunities for summer jobs or internships.
The accelerated program means 14-week terms in the fall and spring, followed by a 10-week summer term. Students will be taking more hours per day in the summer term.
Law school enrollments have dropped nationally due to rising tuition costs and big changes in the legal job market, resulting in fewer jobs available for newly minted law school graduates.
At Gonzaga, the number of first-year law students fell to 108 this fall from 132 a year ago. First-year enrollment in 2012 was down 25 percent from the year before.
Because of law school enrollment declines, Gonzaga University is covering any law school budget deficits this year.
Gonzaga began studying the option earlier this year. Korn said some faculty felt uncomfortable making the change by 2014. “Some would have liked to research this option and find out an answer to every question.
“But if we waited, we’d be doing this five years from now, instead of being innovative in response to a need in the (legal education arena),” Korn said.
GU Law Professor Dan Morrissey said he backed the initiative, saying it should make an impact on GU’s enrollment. “I think we will see an increase because of the new option of getting through law school sooner,” he said.
“Some law schools did this same thing after World War II, in order to help veterans go through the program faster,” he said. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens finished his law degree during a two-year stint at Northwestern University, for example.
Neither the University of Washington nor Seattle University has announced plans to add a similar program at their law schools.