Fostering Excellence in Professionalism, Ethics, Civility, and Legal Skills

In Defense of the Third Year: A Rebuttal to the President

Bencher _May Jun 2014_Cover _WEBThe Bencher--May/June 2014

By Lauren Gailey

Addressing a town hall meeting at New York's Binghamton University in August 2013, President Barack Obama said, in what he warned would likely be a controversial remark, "I believe that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years."

As a third-year law student, I would like to offer a rebuttal.

It is important to note that the President knows of what he speaks. A former president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama also was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago from 1992 to 2004. As both a law student and a law professor, Obama undoubtedly observed firsthand the drawbacks to the three-year system: expensive tuition and concomitant student debt loads, compounded by a challenging job market worsened--possibly permanently--by the economic downturn that has plagued the nation since 2008.

The president was absolutely correct to point out that debt management is a major concern. It can be crushing, both financially and emotionally, for graduating law students who have not yet found employment or whose salaries will leave them with little disposable income. The "big money," i.e., that offered by "big law" jobs, is still available as firms continue to compete for top talent, but it is available to fewer graduates as summer associate classes dwindle in response to firms' fiscal challenges.

From an economic standpoint, reducing law school from three years to two could actually exacerbate the problem. A three-year commitment operates as a barrier to entry for prospective students, keeping the eventual number of job candidates in check and controlling the supply side of the legal labor equation. Should employer demand remain constant, it would become even harder for law school graduates to find jobs by which to defray even two years' worth of debt.

The concern over debt can be mitigated to some degree if, rather than enrolling in law school immediately after earning undergraduate degrees, prospective law students work for a few years first. This helps them to save money toward tuition and gain valuable professional experience that would make them more attractive candidates to law schools--which might be more likely to offer scholarship money--and prospective employers.

The analysis should not stop here. When discussions of the value of the third year of law school focus solely on pragmatic concerns, they suffer from a fatal flaw: They fail to account for the fact that the third year has intrinsic value. As every lawyer and law student knows, law school is what you make of it, and the third year is a microcosm of that phenomenon. It presents students with the chance to refine their skills and prepare for professional life. The unique advantage of the third year is that, unlike the rigid curricular framework of the first two years, the third year is not one-size-fits-all.

In the third year, students have the freedom to explore the subjects that interest them, a process that might even lead to the discovery of the practice area that will be their "calling." They can prepare to enter the profession by gaining familiarity with the information and terminology of their chosen fields. They also have the chance to take courses from professors renowned for their expertise on a particular subject and cultivate deeper relationships with professors whose classes they enjoyed in the first two years.

The third year also presents students with an opportunity to focus their attention on scholarship. In fact, it may be the last chance students have for many years to study the law for its own sake. It is a rare avenue by which students can share their own viewpoints in the hope of molding and shaping the very law they study. By developing the skills necessary for scholarly writing and perhaps even getting their work published, they can build their résumés and reputations and make themselves more attractive candidates for prestigious judicial clerkships or firm or government employment.

Students need the third year because it affords them the precious time and guidance they need to polish their skills before they enter the practice of law. The legal profession has a language all its own and, like any other language, becoming fluent takes time. Furthermore, the additional year of schooling gives students the chance to master particularly difficult concepts with the assistance of professors who are well versed in doing just that; a partner in a law firm is much less available to instruct fledgling lawyers to the same degree. Finally, more time spent learning the law in school allows students to gain exposure to a broader range of concepts--concepts that will become "arrows in their quivers" when they advocate for clients.

For all of these reasons, the third year of law school is a valuable investment that should be retained. A compromise, however, is in order. Employers in the legal field have long complained that law school graduates lack the practical skills they need to succeed in practice. To remedy this problem while maintaining the proper supply-demand ratio in the labor force, law schools should consider emulating the system used by the medical profession: a hybrid of academic and clinical training.

Under this model, law students would spend their first two years taking required courses and the third supplementing their elective coursework by participating in law clinics, externships, and extracurricular activities such as moot court and trial advocacy programs, which are designed to develop useful practical skills. Some state bar associations are exploring requiring a certain number of clinical credits as a prerequisite to admission; law schools should stay ahead of this trend by imposing similar requirements voluntarily.

Law schools' clinical and externship programs could even partner with employers as part of a cooperative education system in which employers could be expected to offer employment upon graduation to students who perform well as externs. These "co-op" arrangements, which have been in use for years by undergraduate engineering schools, would benefit law schools by increasing placement rates, students by arming them with the practical skills that employers expect, and employers by giving them the chance to "audition" new talent.

The third year is a wonderful time in a law student's life. Courses are interesting and enriching, professors are accessible in small seminar-style classes, and a limitless array of fascinating topics is available for further exploration through scholarship. Just as important, the third year allows law students to cement valuable relationships with their peers who will, after graduation, form the basis of their professional networks.

As President Obama pointed out, the third year indeed requires an investment. For this investment to be a lucrative one, the third year not only must be enjoyable-it must also be practical. As law schools continue to acknowledge the necessity of clinical education and integrate it into their curricula, I am hopeful that the benefits of the third year will be available not only to students who have already secured the jobs they need to defray their debt, but to all students who are willing to rise to the challenge of hitting the ground running when they enter the practice of law.

Lauren Gailey, a former talk show producer, will graduate from the Duquesne University School of Law in June 2014. She is a pupil member of the W. Edward Sell AIC in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

© 2014 LAUREN GAILEY. This article was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.