Ballard Spahr L.L.P. chairman Mark Stewart said law firms already make judgments about their hires in the second year of law school, when a select few are invited to work at big firms as summer interns.
Those interns typically are made offers at the end of the summer apprenticeship, quite apart from what they might learn in the third year.
"Law firms are making their assessment on how a person thinks, how we think they can interact with clients and their peers," Stewart said.
At least one prominent law school dean has added his voice for creating a two-year option. Daniel B. Rodriguez, dean of the law school at Northwestern University, said that option could lower costs for students and force law schools to improve the third year as an incentive to get students to stay.
But many other academics think such a move would be a precipitate and unwise response to a complex problem.
"Of all the ideas that I have heard, I think that is the worst one," said Adam Scales, associate dean, Rutgers School of Law in Camden. "You will have people who are less qualified than three-year students."
Spurred by a sharp downturn in the legal market in 2009, lawyers and legal educators across the country are enmeshed in a ticklish and, at times, painful debate about how young lawyers are trained.
In 2007, when the legal economy still was strong, big firms were hiring large numbers of graduates, and the top salary for a lawyer fresh out of law school was $145,000 in Philadelphia and as high as $165,000 in New York and Washington.
Many law school graduates were carrying tuition loans of $150,000 or more, but the high starting salaries assuaged anxiety.
Big firms have since resumed hiring new law school graduates but about half as many as during the boom years. The firms are responding to their clients, who did a slow steam during the flush years over reports about high salaries for new associates.
Those corporate clients are laying down the law: They tell their firms that they will no longer pay for on-the-job training for young lawyers.
"We are not going back to a situation where we have young associates doing document review," said Alfred W. Putnam Jr., chairman of Drinker Biddle & Reath L.L.P., of the relatively unskilled work once assigned to first years.
According to the Law School Admissions Council, in Newtown, which compiles law school applicant data, applications are down 22 percent this year from last.
In response to the ongoing debate over law school practices, the American Bar Association last year established a task force on the future of legal education, whose members include Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, to reassess curriculums and tuition against the backdrop of fewer jobs and complaints by clients that young law graduates can't effectively represent them.
The law schools themselves already are adjusting. Both Drexel University and Temple University law schools, among others, have been reducing class sizes to reflect the drop in applications.
They are emphasizing clinics focusing on litigation, transactional work, and other practical skills. Drexel University law school dean Roger Dennis argues that if young lawyers are unprepared to practice effectively, then the correct response is to intensify training for practical skills in the third year of law school.
The two-year law degree "strikes me as the wrong solution to the right problem," Dennis said.
David Antzis, managing partner of Center City's Saul Ewing L.L.P, isn't so sure.
"We used to have a saying in law school: 'In the first year, law schools scared you; in the second year, they worked you; and in the third year, they bored you,' " Antzis said.
"If you are going to have a three-year program, make sure you have clinical training so that they are ready to practice when they leave."
Contact Chris Mondics