Is the third year necessary?

September 21, 2005

At the Legal Affairs Debate Club, Professors Laura I. Appleman and Daniel Solove debate the relevance of the third year of law school: Abolish the Third Year of Law School?

Solove ponders the nature of legal education in broad strokes:

Some assume that the goal of a legal education should be to teach people practical skills so that when they leave law school, they can start practicing law like a pro. I don't agree. The goal of law school is to teach students how to think better and how to work with various legal arguments. It is to expose them to different ways of understanding the law and to think about the law broadly and critically.

Moreover, law school isn't just about what the students want. We are training people who will be in profound positions of power—future lawyers, judges, politicians, policymakers, and so on. It is important for all of society that these individuals be given a legal education that consists of more than just taking a few key classes and rushing off into the practice of law. Law school is, for many, one of the few times that they reflect more broadly on the law, on justice, on how the law ought to be, on what works and doesn't work well in the legal system. It is a chance to learn about the history of law, the philosophy of law, law and literature, law and sociology, law and economics, and more. I believe that these things make students be better lawyers—wiser, more creative, more well-rounded. When we train lawyers, we're training people who will be shaping our society, and I think it is imperative that their legal education be a robust extension of a liberal arts education, not simply a trade school education. That's because I believe that law is more than a trade; it is more than simply representing clients; it is more than just another kind of business.

Applebaum replies:

The problem, as I see it, is that the current system of law school education attempts to do three things (at least) at the same time: (1) it tries to impart a kind of intellectual approach to the law, a way of thinking and writing, which the student will be able to take wherever she goes; (2) it tries to teach specific bodies of knowledge, such as Criminal Law, Tax, Evidence, etc.; and (3) it tries to place students in jobs after graduation. Although different schools focus on different aspects, all law schools try to achieve all three goals. Yet law school pedagogy is so vaguely defined that students can be left struggling.

For the group of students who enter their third year with a job offer in hand, that final year to get a degree may seem like an expensive barrier between them and the big bucks. For those going into public interest, it's even more debt to carry into a job that is psychologically but not financially rewarding.

However, the third year of law school allows students to delve deeper into various niches of the law with an academic interest, work for clients who might not otherwise have representation in a clinical environment, and/or explore new and unfamiliar areas of the law which may not relate to the student's work after graduation. The third year can make the law student into a better rounded lawyer. The third year also establishes the JD as a more rigorous professional degree than an MBA, so lawyers can command more respect than b-school grads.

On a related topic, Ambivalent Imbroglio looks into whether large debt loads are really keeping law school grads from going into public interest work: Reality Testing Law School Debt and the Public Interest Career: "he point is that the money difference between public interest and what at least half of GW grads makes is not really that big—certainly not big enough to be an excuse not to pursue a public interest career for students who are sincere in their desire to do so."

Update: I missed AI's first post about the value of the third year, with some discussion: Questioning 3L, which references an AP article asking the same question.

Posted by Andrew Raff at September 21, 2005 05:48 PM
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Excerpt: Following up on yesterday's post about whether the cost of law school should prevent people from pursuing public interest careers, Andrew Raff points to an ongoing debate at the Legal Affairs Debate Club over the question: Abolish the third year of law...
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