On the brink of a new school year, Obama surprised many and offered a solution for schools to consider.
"Law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years," the president said during a town hall meeting at Binghamton University—SUNY on Aug. 23. "In the first two years young people are learning in the classroom. The third year they'd be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren't getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student."
Law schools have been under pressure to rethink how they operate as students grapple with a tough job market and student loan debt.
[Prepare from freshman year to apply to law school.]
A number of schools offer accelerated, two-year J.D. programs, but traditional three-year schools still dominate legal education.
Several 2013 law graduates weighed in on their 3L year and whether law schools should continue to have a third year.
Eliminate or Revamp the Traditional Third Year
Phil Amos III is like many new law graduates: excited about the future and antsy to find a job. An alum of the Dickinson School of Law at Pennsylvania State University—University Park, Amos said the best class he took was in his third year.
The course on advocacy taught him how to do things such as draft a complaint and file a discovery request.
"It taught me how to be a lawyer," he says.
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Even though he had a positive experience during his third year, he believes law schools should consider requiring students spend the time gaining more hands-on experience. Making students do a yearlong externship is one way, he says.
"With the job market the way it is, companies and firms, they look for that experience," he says. "What better way to get it than requiring students to go and work for a year?"
Stephanie Rodriguez shares a similar perspective. She took classes on topics like women and law, and white collar crime as a 3L – the common term for third-year students. The George Washington University School of Law graduate recognizes eliminating the traditional third year gives students less time to take specialized classes, but she isn't sure how many students really take advantage of the opportunity.
"A large number of students do fill their third year with what students would call 'filler courses,'" she says. "I don't know if at over $50,000 a year it's valuable as opposed to working in a legal clinic."
[Consider attending a new law school.]
More Time in School, More Time to Learn
Shanita Nicholas' third year in graduate school was especially valuable.
As a dual-degree student at Columbia University, she spent her first year taking law classes and the second taking business school classes. She spent her third year doing work in both schools, with law school consuming most of her time. She juggled classroom work with extracurricular activities such as participating in the Black Law Student Association and the Columbia Business Law Review.
She also did an externship at a hedge fund during her last semester, which let her apply what she was learning in class to the real world.
She says that an experience-focused third year could benefit law students. But in her case, three years meant more time to fit in everything she needed to get two degrees.
"I think that option would still have to be there for dual-degree students," she says. "I just don't think it could be done in two years."
What Future Law Students Should Know
Erin Bantz can't imagine getting through law school without having had a third year, even though she thinks schools could restructure the third year to emphasize legal experience.
Bantz, a graduate of Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, got credit for working with her school's moot court board and worked in Maurer's community legal clinic during her third year.
"Working with the clinic gave me a little bit of a better sense of what my duties as a lawyer would look like," she says.
Bantz is currently doing a clerkship for a local court in Indiana. She encourages prospective students to do their homework before committing to law school.
"If you have an idea of the kind of law you want to practice, do research on the market," she says. "It's good to have all the facts before making a big investment of time and money."
Chanel Lattimer-Tingan served as president of the Black Law Student Association during her third year at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and participated in two clinics, experiences that are nearly impossible to have as a 1L or 2L at Penn, she says.
She encourages prospective students to plan on taking a wide variety of classes to prepare them for a legal career.
If prospective students are stuck choosing between pursuing two-year programs or traditional three-year schools, Lattimer-Tingan urges them to think about their career prospects.
"Do some introspection and figure out what it is you're looking to get out of law school, whether you doing a two-year program would affect your job prospects in any type of way," she says.
Also consider finances, she says. "If there's any type of economic benefits of having a free year, essentially, or having one less year of being in school."
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