I never thought much of my third year of law school. I remember only two classes I took that year, and one of them did not require me to come to the campus at all. All I knew was that no matter what I did, nothing was going to affect my class rank or my employment outlook. Knowing this, I strategically chose my classes in order to minimize my time in school. In my final semester, I only went to campus one day out of the week.
So for my annual “legal education reform” column, I would like to look at the necessity of the third year of law school. Others here have written about this in the past but now that the coronavirus is forcing people to be more open-minded, it would be a good time to revisit this topic. And I think there is time to make this happen before the upcoming fall semester.
The traditional three-year law school curriculum started in 1906. Laws (and life in general) were simpler in those days. Back then, “main street” lawyers were usually trained through an apprenticeship. There were a small number of law schools in those days but the curriculum varied from 18 to 24 months. Also, law schools were considered to be a finishing school for the rich, political elite.
The three-year curriculum might have been appropriate in that era. Back then, Biglaw, the Cravath system, and the U.S. News Law School rankings were nonexistent. Most lawyers at the time ran their own practices and were generalists. Because of this, a three-year program could have been necessary to cover all of the basic legal subjects a generalist would need in order to effectively practice law. Also, the quality of apprenticeships varied widely, so a uniform, basic legal education could make up for a subpar apprenticeship. And until recent years, law school was relatively inexpensive, so some could use the third year to improve their class rank if they were in the fringes.
But recently, people have been questioning whether the third year of law school is necessary. More lawyers are specializing in one or a few practice areas so there may be no need for taking classes that may be unnecessary. And most importantly, law schools are starting to cost $100,000 per year, thus making the third year an expensive proposition, especially to underrepresented minorities who are likely to have a harder time paying back their student loans. CLE seminars are starting to sound more cost effective.
Many law schools tried to adapt by training “practice ready” lawyers. They offered classes on drafting legal documents. They also offered simulations on negotiations and client counseling. I took one of these classes in law school, and the experience wasn’t the same. Practicing adversarial negotiation with a classmate was like playing poker for fun where the loser buys everyone a round of drinks. Also, these practice-ready graduates did not necessarily make them more attractive in the job market.
The solution is to give upcoming third-year law students a choice. They can choose to finish their third year by taking classes or through a full-time job as a lawyer’s apprentice or intern.
Some may want to finish law school the traditional way for a number of reasons. They enjoy learning in a classroom setting, their prospective employer may require it, or it may be an opportunity to improve their class rank, to name a few.
But many third years would prefer to spend the final year getting real-world experience. At the moment, it might be more difficult to find a job but those who are able to should be allowed to substitute one year’s work experience for one year’s worth of academic credits.
Can this policy be implemented next fall? Most law schools already give academic credit for externships so I can’t imagine it will be too difficult to make this transition. Interested law students should contact their law school and petition their state bar as soon as possible.
For $ome reason, I suspect law schools will be reluctant to cooperate. This is where the ABA and state bars should step in. State bars should consider implementing a rule allowing admission to those who have two years of law school academic credit and one year of supervised work experience so long as they pass the bar exam and meet character and fitness requirements. Law schools might respond by threatening to not award the JD degree to those who do this. It’s hard to say how students will react as everyone has different goals and circumstances. While a degree from an elite law school is probably worth its weight in student loan dollars, others might care more about getting a law license inexpensively.
Another possible solution is to have the employer pay the third-year tuition and costs. Schools that send most of their graduates to high-paying firms can make a lot of money doing this without putting their graduates into massive debt. On the other hand, law schools that have great difficulty placing students in high-paying jobs (or any job for that matter) will suffer financially.
Due to the coronavirus, legal education will undergo some changes in the near future. Most will be temporary while others might be permanent. Now is a good time to allow third-year students to finish their education in a professional setting. For most law students, the third year of law school is a waste of time and money, and they should be given the choice to opt out. If they are allowed to work, they will get paid, gain real-world experience, and they will be more likely to be employable in the future. But if law students want a shot at this opportunity next fall, they have to take the initiative now and contact their state bars. No one is going to do this for them.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at [email protected] Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.