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Not Time Served
A Sea Change in Legal and Medical Education?

A movement to shorten the length of medical school is quietly gaining steam. Most medical schools today take their four-year program from a set of recommendations contained in a report issued in 1910. But the conditions that produced those recommendations were left behind long ago, and it looks like medical schools are finally starting to question where it’s really necessary for students to do four full, expensive years in the classroom. The NYT reports on a particularly promising attempt to convert “time served” to “stuff learned” via competency programs:

A recent, unpublished survey of 120 medical schools, conducted by the New York University School of Medicine, found that 30 percent were considering or already planning to start three-year programs, according to Dr. Steven B. Abramson, the senior vice president and vice dean for education, faculty and academic affairs. […]

One emphasis is competency-based programs, in which students’ pace is determined by how well they perform a task, not by the number of years spent in school. Such programs in other fields have shortened the education process by about 20 percent, said Dr. Susan E. Skochelak, the association’s group vice president for medical education.

If successful, programs like this could have a lot of very beneficial knock-on effects. For instance, since they will have less debt ($30,000 to $50,000 for each year cut), medical school graduates would have more freedom to choose a wide variety of specialities instead of just those that pay the best. Most importantly, however, this allows talented students to stay in school only as long as it takes them to learn what they need to know.

Medical schools aren’t the only ones figuring out how to cut out useless time spent in schools. Four states in the country have programs that allow aspiring lawyers to get admitted to the profession without ever going to law school. Instead, aspirants in Virginia, Vermont, Washington and California can read law textbooks and apprentice with a licensed lawyer as prerequisites for the bar exam. More people could become lawyers through this process than currently do, and many believe the ongoing crisis in the legal field will push more people into these kinds of programs.

Shortened medical education and expanded legal apprenticeship programs are both excellent ways to help professions adapt to today’s changing economic conditions. The more states and universities that put them into practice, the better.

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  • Pete

    As for medical schools. If you look at the courses given in undergraduate biology and pre-med programs, you can’t help but notice how far they have advanced from just a generation years. This in-and-of itself is justification for cutting the time to get a MD.

  • Boritz

    Will a PhD ever get below the 8.2 year average? &nbspTalk about degree requirements that could be revisited.

  • Fat_Man

    My father, z’l, and my grandfather, z’l, were lawyers, and both of them had undergraduate law degrees (LL.B.). They both practiced law with great success and much honor in the bar and the community for many years (1921 – 1966 and 1947 – 1990). So it was for hundreds of thousands of lawyers before the organized bar talked the bar examiners into the 7 year requirement. Just remember, Abraham Lincoln did not go to law school. And you, anyone who reads these words, are not a better lawyer than Abraham Lincoln. Really, you aren’t.

    A beginning lawyer needs about 16 semester credits of classroom work. They could be taken as an undergraduate major, or even in community college programs just like training in practical nursing or HVAC repair. This whole business of making law school, a graduate program is ridiculous. After doing the classroom work, a trainee should spend four years under the direct supervision of an experienced lawyer or judge. (sitting in a windowless room doing document review would not count). After a thorough character and fitness review, he could then be sworn in as a member of the Bar.

  • El Gringo

    The apprenticeship would further serve to teach actual lawyering skills. Currently, it is not only possible but normal for students to graduate law school without ever having set foot in a courthouse or learned basic procedures such how to file a legal document.

    We wouldn’t trust a surgeon who has never touched a scalpel but a lawyer who has never actually seen a real legal document seems to be fine?

  • DiaKrieg

    “Most medical schools today take their four-year program from a set of recommendations contained in a report issued in 1910. But the conditions that produced those recommendations were left behind long ago.”

    What conditions are those? Medicine has advanced by orders of magnitude over the past century. Why would it take less time to train a doctor now than it did in 1910, before there were anesthetics or antibiotics, let alone chemotherapy?

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