More on the law schools’ embattled third year
“Vested interests” is the way Stephen Harper (an adjunct teacher in the undergraduate college at Northwestern University and an occasional lecturer at the Law School) fashions the barriers to what he describes as the “good idea” of truncating law school by dissolving the third year.
As I have said elsewhere, there are indeed some deeply embedded interests, one reflected well in the ABA’s accreditation standards for law schools, and the other revealed by law schools’ understandable reticence to cut off a major source of revenue for their academic programs. Both of these circumstances, however, are coming under tough scrutiny and we should forecast with caution about what the near-term and intermediate-term future holds.
Yet the argument for the third year is more nuanced, and considerably more compelling, than Harper (and his colleagues in the blogosphere) maintain. Indeed, I trust that Harper, a seasoned Biglaw lawyer and experienced commentator, understands that deep down. His bromides to the contrary promise to sell more of his book, and also drive the scambloggers to his site, but they are ultimately not constructive, not helpful.
By “nuanced,” I mean that the structure of the third year should be thought about precisely from the vantage point of what value two additional semesters adds to the intellectual equipment and skills training of a young lawyer? The third year is not intended to replace law firm training, or the cultural adaptation to law firm life that necessarily must take place on the job. It is intended, rather, to fulfill the promise of a robust, comprehensive, and, yes, practical curriculum, one which builds on foundational knowledge (principally gathered in the first year and in second year core courses, and one that extends law students’ training in ways that are deeply and directly relevant to their professional skill-building. To be sure, some law schools do this very well; perhaps a majority do not. While law school was (relatively speaking) a bargain and jobs plentiful, the question of how best to organize and implement such an ambitious curriculum was peripheral. Now it is central. President Obama’s comments have further made it so. This is all to the good.
Yet, there remains (and Harper’s article rightly zooms in on this) the tandem question of whether and to what extent this value added, assuming that there is, as I believe there is, real value there, can be justified economically. This is, to me, a central question and an extremely difficult one. Perhaps law schools should experiment with variable pricing strategies, looking to reduce the tuition burden in the third year. One idea that ought to get some traction is to provide a discount for students doing substantial externships. Perhaps the financial impact can be shared between the organization and the law school, all to the advantage of the student. There are likely more creative ideas around for ameliorating the third year tuition impact on students.
Let’s just ask the right question in the right way. What can be done to alleviate student debt burdens while maintaining the advantage — not the tradition, not the accreditation requirement, but the demonstrable advantage — of the practical training and cumulative learning that the third year of law school provides? True, this is a more complex way to put the question, but here complexity captures the essence of the matter. Shouting from the rooftops “THE THIRD YEAR IS A VAST WASTELAND” gets ink and sells papers. But it is not the responsible course.