by Chris Bodenner
Many readers address the question in rich detail:
I’m sure that many law students waste their third year of law school. But in my 3rd year, I took electives in “International Human Rights Law, Refugee Law, and Civil Liberties”; I interned part time at a local public defender’s office; and I wrote a law review article on free speech rights of high school students. Oh, and the previous year, knowing that I had plenty of time to take all the classes I needed for the bar exam, I got a couple of units for teaching a “Street Law” class at a local high school. In addition, because three years of law school means two summers, not just one, I was able to work at a small environmental law firm after my first year, and a more traditional firm (ie, one that might offer me a job) after my second year. Had law school been only two years, I might have been forced to eschew the former job.
Finally, having taught high school for many years (see, that Street Law gig paid off), I have learned that the most important things that an educational institution can offer a student are opportunities – opportunities to take nontraditional courses, to pursue various career and academic options, and to engage in intellectual inquiry. Yes, many students will waste those opportunities by playing Madden, as was the case with Elie Mystal. However, it is grossly inequitable to allow the fecklessness of a few – or even of a majority – to impoverish the education of those who desire more than the bare minimum – essentially vocational – education of a two-year law school program.
This post is quite timely, as my third year of law school started yesterday. We discussed the president’s comments in my class “Wealth, Democracy, and the Rule of Law”. This is something that I wrestle with because it would be great to graduate with less debt but this issue isn’t so simple. The third year of law school serves purposes beyond teaching you to “think like a lawyer.” Two things come to mind:
The first is that students would probably spend two years taking subjects that are on the bar and miss out on other classes. So besides your first-year required courses, second year would turn into another list of rote courses. There’s a virtue in giving students the opportunity to study things besides the general legal knowledge on the bar exam (like environmental law, intellectual property, poverty law) to give them an idea in the area they want to practice.
Without a third year, students couldn’t take a class like “Wealth, Democracy, and the Rule of Law” to talk about democratic legitimacy and the effect of money in a democratic system. This is a course that undergrads can take in political science, but studying it now through the lens of the law gives it something new. It can affect work as a lawyer to think about the financial inequalities in a system of laws.
Second, who will foot the bill for the transition from student to lawyer? I am lucky that my school offers clinical programs to start practicing lawyerly work, but the same instruction would cost a firm an enormous amount of money. A lawyer doesn’t start out being profitable, so hiring a two-year educated student could be a riskier investment than someone with a third-year clinic. This could make the legal employment problem even worse. More is needed than the president’s impromptu comments to bring down the costs of legal education.
While I am a strong supporter of Obama, I disagree with his thinking here. First, Obama has probably had one of the least typical post-law school legal experiences. He never practiced – whether in private practice or as part of a corporate/government legal department – for any notable period of time. He is highly familiar with the academic side of law school, but that is where his experience ends.
Where I believe law school falls short is on the practical training side. Obama’s answer is just to condense the academic side and then turn them loose on the theory that they won’t have to pay for the third year, which tends to be more of a practical application training year than an educational one. But, economics will kick in to make sure that tuition for any two-year program is sufficient to pay the professors, who likely will not easily agree to a 1/3 salary cut and other administrative costs.
Actually, if anything, the academic side could perhaps use some pruning. Constitutional law, for example, while an interesting area of tremendous importance in terms of the country’s legal framework, has practically no application to most attorneys’ daily practice. The training side of law school should start early. Not only writing and argument development – which is currently standard – but listening to and advising partners and clients. These latter qualities, while simple sounding, can be significantly more difficult and may take years to develop – even for the most academically successful student.
The benefit of the third year is learning how to apply the tools gathered from the intensive first two years. Doing this in an academic and supportive environment (or at least with mentors who are actually paid to mentor) rather than some of the cut-throat realities of the first year of private practice is likely of significantly greater value. I would also add that right now firms are generally very reluctant to hire new law grads because of their lack of any practical experience. (And I’m not talking about the rarified top firms, whose own brands sell their services and not their lawyers and who thus operate on a different business model in terms of associate recruitment than most of the legal world.) Reducing law school to solely the academic training would likely only exacerbate this problem in the short term, which would ultimately be of significantly less benefit to students from a career perspective than to pay for the third year.
Another recommends reducing the number of undergrad years instead:
Cutting law school to two years is a bad idea. What I think is a good idea: more combined BA/JD programs that let you get out of school in five or six years. It’s ridiculous that the US is the only country that requires a full baccalaureate degree before going to law school. And our baccalaureates are four years, while in Europe, they’re three.
I don’t think we need many 21-year-old lawyers on the streets, at least not without a formal paid apprenticeship or preceptorship, but the average law school graduate has completed seven years of higher education – eight if they did law school at night. That’s a lot of loans. I was in law school during the last period of time when it was possible to take out a maximum Stafford loan, pay tuition and books, and live on the rest. I was also fortunate that I paid off my college student debt during the five years I worked between college and law school. A dozen years later, I still owe $75k in student loans. I’m making headway, and I’ll eventually pay them off, but that kind of debt limits your employment (no making $35k a year working for a small nonprofit!) and makes the prospect of unemployment absolutely terrifying.
One more reader:
FYI, at least one law school I know of – Brooklyn Law School – now offers a two-year program (there are probably more – I just happen to know of Brooklyn’s because I’m an alum). However, this two-year program costs the same as a three-year program; it just fits the same amount of classes into a shorter timespan by cutting out the summer and winter breaks. Most law school students work as law clerks or summer interns (or “summer associates” at big firms) in the summers, so this essentially just moves that early working experience from the middle to the end of the process.
I don’t think I would have been well-served by this setup, but I’m sure it’ll be useful for some people. They just have to reconcile themselves to opting out of the usual big firm recruitment model (which, truthfully, a lot of people are doing anyway just by going to BLS).
I’ve heard grumbling that this is a gimmick and since the tuition is the same, there’s no real innovation or change here, but I don’t entirely agree. I left law school with a massive amount of debt and only some of that was from tuition. Another huge portion was from living expenses – which, in New York City, are no joke. Cutting that by a third could be a huge benefit to some people, particularly if they are trying to pay tuition with loans while living on a spouse’s income.
What I’d really like to see is true innovation in how we train lawyers by getting away from a “one size fits all” model. I’d like to see a model in which different specialties carry different licenses based on passing different exams – kind of how teachers have different credentials for math, science, English, etc. Some stuff would be common to all. For example, everyone calling themselves a lawyer should have a basic grasp of constitutional principles and probably all of the other core first-year subjects as well (contracts, torts, crim law, property). Beyond that, let students mix-and-match as suits them and their goals.