Reducing Law School to Two Years Would Be a Major Mistake
Reform, don't eliminate, law school's third year
September 30, 2013
Reducing law school to two years would be a serious mistake. Most law school graduates are not ready to practice after three years; chopping off a year would make this worse. As cognitive scientists have demonstrated, developing expertise requires many hours of learning. Moreover, law firms and public service organizations cannot afford to give their attorneys on-the-job education.
Law students need to learn more than black letter law before they practice. They need to learn the policies behind the law and how to apply the law to real-life situations. They also need to learn how the law intersects with business and other fields of knowledge. Eliminating a year would also mean that law schools could only teach the basics. Students would no longer be able to specialize in the area of law that interests them the most. Every law graduate would be a generalist. Is this in the public interest?
Equally important, changing law school to two years would not solve the serious financial crisis facing today’s law graduates and the glut of lawyers currently on the market. If tuition were reduced by the elimination of the third year, making law school cheaper and shorter, even more people would apply. In addition, law schools would find a way to keep costs at their current level.
Making the third year optional, as has been suggested, would make matters worse for those students who opt for only two years. The better-paying jobs would go to those who completed three years, and those who only went for two would be stuck with grunt work or have no job at all.
Even reducing law school to two years but keeping the credit hours the same would be a mistake. The current schedule already overworks law students. Deep learning requires reflection, and reflection requires time.
Law schools need to reinvent the third year to make it more valuable to students. Most elite schools can continue their academic, scholarly emphasis, combining theory and philosophy with statistics, economics and other social science and technocratic skills. Other law schools can integrate law with learning business skills and international law to better serve corporate clients.
Most law schools, however, need to prepare students to be practicing attorneys in order to serve clients and the public. This requires hands-on, practice-oriented courses. For example, Stanford Law School has adopted a multi-faceted approach with interdisciplinary team-oriented, problem-solving courses, and expanded clinical offerings centered around an in-house law firm and courses to help students practice in a global world. The law schools at Washington and Lee and the University of Denver have devoted their third years to a complete immersion in practice-oriented courses. Similarly, Vermont Law School offers an optional general practice program.
Most law schools should require a minimum of one skills class per semester in the second and third years, with a clinic in the final year as a capstone course. Under this proposal, 15 out of approximately 60 credit hours of the last two years of law school would be devoted to practice-oriented courses. Devoting one-fourth of the upper-level curriculum to better preparing graduates to practice law makes sense. Finally, most classes should include problem solving. The third year of law school should be reformed, not eliminated.