Last week the idea picked up steam when President Obama announced that he thinks cutting the third year of law school is a good idea.
"He questioned the utility of a third year of classes and suggested that students use their final two semesters to gain work experience. 'In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom,' Mr. Obama said. '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 costs for the student.'"
Obama made these remarks during his tour on college affordability. He has proposed tying financial aid to the performance metrics of the school. Obama wants to rein "in rising tuition costs by creating a system to rate colleges and eventually tie federal student aid to the institutions' performance. The president called for rating colleges before the 2015 school year on measures such as affordability and graduation rates—'metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with, how easy is it to pay off, how many students graduate on time, how well do those graduates do in the workforce.'"
There is a definite need to rein in the costs of tuition for law schools. Many law schools currently require their students to fulfill an internship requirement during the students' third year, but the students generally have to pay the law school tuition for the internship credits. So not only are the students working for free, they have to pay their law school a hefty sum to do so. In that regard, it makes sense to cut the curriculum to two years and leave the third year for practical work experience.
But this also means that the work experience needs to be meaningful enough to warrant missing out on classes. In my own experience, I took many great classes during my third year. Classes that I find essential to the practice of law. For example, when I took a pretrial skills class during 3L, the professor taught the process of client interviewing, filing a complaint, discovery, writing motions, and client communication in a methodical, effective way. I then used those skills to work for a solo practitioner and work in a legal clinic. While I was getting 'real world' experience, the process was not laid out in a sensible manner. I would walk into the office and be told to write a motion. If I hadn't taken the pretrial skills class, I would not have understood where the motion fit into the overall process. On the flipside, I could have gained that experience elsewhere if a law firm or practitioner had the mind to teach me the overall process, which requires more time and potential lost billable hours.
In a Letter to the Editor response, one attorney wrote, "[h]ere is my experience, based on 30 years as a lawyer working with scores of students. Compared with second-year students, third-year students stand out. They know more. They analyze legal issues better. They conduct themselves more professionally. My counterproposal is this: Make law school four years."
It's a contentious issue, no doubt. As the ABA continues to contemplate innovation and change in legal education, this might be an area that they are willing to finally consider.