NEW YORK (MainStreet) "This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck," said President Obama, speaking last week at a town hall meeting at Binghamton University. "I am in my second term, so I can say it. I believe that law school would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years."
It's about time.
I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2009, and my time there was some of the best of my life. The third year most of all. For those two semesters, I took classes on terrorism, free speech and symbolic logic, courses that allowed me to think deeply and learn from extraordinary minds about some of the most profound issues of our day. It made for some wonderful discussions and many heated debates. I still get chills every time I walk back on campus and realize that I actually got to be a part of all this.
But it didn't make me a better lawyer.
Here's the dirty little secret about modern legal education: it doesn't prepare students to actually practice law. Being a lawyer is about filling out forms, working within government systems and whatever it is the corporate structuring guys do every day. Some 90% of practice, especially as a junior associate, is about research and writing when it's not about mind-numbing tedium.
When I graduated from law school I barely knew how to do any of that stuff. None of us did.
In an average program, legal writing is a one semester course taught in the first year. After that, as a general rule you can spend entire years without producing anything longer than one or two pages. Learning how to file a motion or draft a contract is, at best, covered in optional, one semester clinics that barely even touch on matters like issuing a subpoena or holding a deposition. They can't. Actually practicing law is too complicated to cram into just one semester.
It's why many firms see first year hires as apprentices rather than colleagues and why clients increasingly refuse to pay for their work.
This is the problem with holding on to the third year: it's not teaching students anything they need to know.
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The first year of law school is essential. It's when students learn the tools of being a lawyer, along with the actual rules and universal concepts that we call "black letter law." It's the year you learn to think like a lawyer, an ambiguous but critical phrase, and the year you learn that your professors (and several fellow students) are much, much smarter than you'll ever be.
The second year of law school allows students to specialize by taking electives, since the first is almost entirely prescribed. Thanks to a quirk of legal hiring, it's also when we interview for our jobs after graduation. The office with which you intern during the second year summer is, for most students, the same one in which you start your career. It's a bizarre system of hiring more than a year in advance and has gotten firms in trouble more than once.
The third year is just sort of there.
Defenders of the current system argue that the opportunities students have justifies the third year of education. From a purely academic sense, they're right, but this also exposes the yawning gap between academia and reality that plagues legal education in general, a system that does a far better job preparing its students to teach law than to actually practice it.
As an intellectual exercise, the third year is wonderful, and there are certainly opportunities for those who want to make them. As I said above, I loved mine. The problem is that this intellectual exercise comes at the cost of a full year spent out of the workforce and another year's tuition in borrowed money. For me that price tag was $45,000, not counting lost income.
For the many students who are already employed, it also creates an entire year of virtually no responsibilities. That year can be a meaningful intellectual exercise if you want, but also there's very little stopping it from becoming an eight-month-long Spring Break either.
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This isn't to say that a third year has to be completely useless. Schools that want to keep it as an option could offer advanced certificates or LLM degrees upon completion. That would incentivize them to make the program valuable, since otherwise students wouldn't take it.
As others have suggested, schools could also make the third year practical and train students to practice the law. Employers and clients everywhere would applaud if graduates started walking into firms across the country ready to do actual work instead of spending their first year in an expensive apprenticeship.
As it is, however, there's simply no pedagogical reason why law students need to stay for their third year. Regardless of the third year's intellectual merit, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that nothing I learned during those final two semesters helped to prepare me when it came time to write a research memo, summarize a stack of depositions or spend countless hours at document review. If law schools want to make some real changes to their system, I think everyone is listening.
Otherwise, and I feel I speak for many other recent graduates as well, I want my third year back.
Author's Note: There are some schools across the country that currently offer a law degree in two years instead of three. These, however, are merely accelerated programs that fit the same amount of credit hours into a tighter schedule. As a general rule the cost is equivalent, or only slightly less.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.