Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Some Question Third Year of Law School

The Washington Post has a story on the perennial debate over whether the third year of law school is necessary.

At many top law schools, the third year is famously relaxed, a halcyon interlude between rigorous introductory courses and the long hours that await graduates at law firm jobs. There is research and volunteer work, but also a lot of bar-hopping and little studying: 15 hours per week, according to one survey at 11 law schools, compared to 33 hours for first-year students.

But if it's an extended vacation, it's pricey: $30,000 or more at top private schools. And at many law schools, grads can't count on the six-figure salaries awaiting many at the most prestigious programs, so an extra year of debt is a big burden.

Some educators want to see the third year beefed up, arguing the law is more complex than ever and future lawyers need more preparation, both for the bar and exam and for their careers. But others want it dropped.

Critics say there's so much law that students will learn most of it on the job, anyway. They see the third year as a revenue racket, a full-employment scheme for faculty that comes at the expense of non-elite school students and discourages them from taking public service jobs.

It's a periodic debate in legal education, and with tuition going ever higher, there are signs it's heating up again.

The American Bar Association recently updated its accreditation guidelines for law schools to require more total minutes of instruction, but offering schools more flexibility in how that's structured.

That prompted the University of Dayton to announce a program starting this fall designed to help students earn a J.D. in two years, including summer work. It has no fewer requirements and doesn't charge less, but it saves students a year of living expenses....

But there are also signs the third year is as entrenched as ever. The ABA's requirements are still stringent. The legal profession wants to keep quality _ and in some critics' eyes, salaries _ high, so it doesn't want to make it too easy to become an attorney. Also, the legal recruiting process is built around a three-year schedule; summers are when law students earn money and take the internships that lead to jobs, so many will be reluctant to give them up.

Besides, many third-year law students do work hard. Increasingly, they are getting hands-on training in legal clinics. In the classroom, some educators say third year is when students learn the law they most need to know. University of Chicago Law Dean Saul Levmore says students there are more likely to suggest adding a fourth year than dropping the third.

Jeff Lewis, dean at St. Louis University, says he's pushing for more rigor and specialization in the third-year curriculum. He also says the final-year course he teaches is packed with attentive students _ though that may be unusual.

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