By Erin Fuchs
There’s been a lot of debate about the value law school ever since President Obama suggested that law schools should lop off the third year to save students money. As lawyers face rising debt and weak job prospects, this is becoming an increasingly popular idea. We spoke to two recent law school graduates to find out more about why the third year of law school may be a waste of time. A recent graduate of the University of Missouri law school, Rita Flórez says a third year of classes is “like watching paint dry” after two years of course work. “You get to 3L and you’re just like, why I am here?” she said. “I had a lot of classmates who skipped frequently.”
During the first two years, law students take meaty courses like CivPro (the rules lawyers have to follow during civil lawsuits), contracts, and legal ethics. By the time she got to the third year, Flórez says, she wanted to continue developing her legal skills instead of taking electives, like law and literature and lawyering and biography that third year. Many of the students in her cohort developed senioritis, she says. Much of her attention was consumed by freaking out about taking the bar exam in July.*
The third year doesn’t have to be that painful. Recent Duke Law School grad Zachary Linowitz spent half of his last year at the San Francisco public defender’s office doing a full-time externship. He wishes he could have spent the entire year doing real legal work, though. “That third year should be spent in a meaningful employment position as an apprentice for the kind of lawyer you hope to become,” Linowitz told BI. “Right now you don’t learn to be a lawyer in law school. You learn to think like a lawyer.” In an ideal world, Linowitz says, law schools would get rid of the third year, and students would go off and do externships their third year. It’s also possible that students could spend their third year doing externships with supervision from their law schools. In that kind of arrangement, they could pay tuition or half tuition.
Of course, that kind of arrangement would also mean there would be less work for law professors—and less money for law schools if students pay reduced tuition. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler teaches the very courses that would be on the chopping block if the third year were killed or dramatically reshaped. The electives he teaches, like his seminar on the right to bear arms, help people think like a lawyer, Winkler said, using the very phrase that recent law grad Linowitz used to criticize law school. “Learning how many pages a brief has to be, or where a motion has to be filed,” Winkler told BI, “that’s not what law schools are here to teach.”
Correction, August 31, 2013: This post originally said Rita Flórez had senioritis and took the bar exam in September.