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August 26, 2013

2-year law school debate continued: In the spin zone

by Dan Rodriguez

Above the Law post on this afternoon’s discussion among me, David Lat, and Elie Mystal on the value of the third year of law school.

Their big blog; they get to do the spin.  On my tiny blog, I get to do my own spin, and here it is:

1.  “Dean Rodriguez basically agrees that the third year as currently constituted doesn’t give a whole lot of value to students who are asked to pay full price.”

Well, not exactly.  My first words out were, “depends upon the law school.”  Law schools — all law schools — must justify the value added in the third year.  Not sure that all (most?) law schools can do so.  Because we are requiring this large amount of third-year tuition, we must constantly answer the question:  What is the added value?  In Northwestern’s case, it is a congeries of skills training courses, including work in a world-class clinic; it is appearing on behalf of clients in court; advising small-business owners in our entrepreneurship law center; working in our trial advocacy program; writing and editing for one of the many law journals; taking part in our distinctive third-year research program; externing for a state judge . . .  you get the point.  Whether and to what extent other law schools can make out the case for the third year is a fair question and it is right for the ATL folks to push us to answer the question.

What is not so right is to insist that the 3rd year is inherently valueless and, as the President suggested yesterday, could easily be replaced by a clerkship with a judge or a stint with a private law firm.

I stand by my comments in the press that the third year of law school, and the tuition we collect, should be earned.

(2) “Yay 3L year.”  Nonstop party for Elie Mystal.  “Don’t act like I’m the only one.”  No, you are not the only one.  But, in this difficult marketplace, law firms are truly looking to law schools to do more substantial practical training, to equip students with the skills — the practical skills — to hit the ground running.  True, there remain a handful of schools (Northwestern is one; so, too, apparently are the two elite schools from which Mr. Lat and Mr. Mystal had the good fortune of graduating) where a large proportion of students have their Biglaw jobs lined up by the end of the second summer.  But the times they are a’changing.  Moreover, for most law schools, the reality is considerably different.  For law students of these law schools, the time in the third year is spent augmenting their skills and burnishing their credentials.  Their job search is active and intense throughout their third year and often beyond.  For these students, the third year is not for Madden football, Mexico spring break and, as Mr. Lat said in the interview, improving one’s golf game.  It is for skill-building and job-searching; it is for making this transformative transition to becoming a lawyer.

(3) In the final analysis, the case for the third year of law school stands or falls on precisely what value is added and at what cost.  The constituencies that are in the best position to make this assessment ought not to be the ABA (on this, the three of us agree), state bar examiners (see the Estreicher argument with which I am in agreement), or President Obama (who certainly made much of his third year at Harvard, where he served as President of the Harvard Law Review).  It should be the law students themselves, who should be able to vote with their feet if and when the two-year law school option is put squarely before them.  And it should be the law firms, who can make the judgment of whether and to what extent just two years is enough to give their young lawyers the level and scope of practical skills that will provide real value to their organization and to their clients.

(4) Meanwhile, law schools do need to sharpen their pencils and take a hard look at their economic model.  We will need to look outside for the resources needed to maintain a high-quality educational program; we will need to experiment with new modalities of instruction; we will need to collaborate with key segments of the profession on programs to enhance professionalism and professional success; and, we will need to understand that law is “practiced” by many folks in myriad contexts, including by non lawyers.  We will need to do all these things while meaningfully controlling costs.

All that is rather hard to resort to a town hall soundbite, Mr. President.  But that is our responsibility and our ambition.

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