In August, President Obama
stirred up an epic debatewhen he suggested slashing law school to two years, casting a public spotlight on a debate that’s been simmering in the legal world.
The main argument against the third year is that it’s filled with the kind of electives that Justice Antonin Scalia has attacked so ferociously. Since law school already costs as much as $50,000 a year, why spend an entire year on classes that are interesting but not necessary?
Obama’s suggestion about slashing the third year of law school came in the midst of an ongoing debate about how America can make education more affordable. He graduated from law school in 1991 and only finished paying off his student loans in about 2004. Obama also taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Presumably, the man knows what he’s talking about.
In fact, many law students seem to agree: A recent Kaplan Bar Review survey found that 63% of recent grads thought the third year of law school was useless.
However, many people argue that the third year is necessary since it gives students practical clinical experiences. (A huge criticism of law school is that graduates emerge with a lot of theoretical knowledge of the law but little understanding of how to actually practice the law.)
Obama’s suggestion that schools cut the third year has “surface appeal,” Georgetown Law professor Philip Schrag acknowledged in a letter to The New York Times. But if the third year goes, he said, students would only get to take “basic survey courses.” From his letter:
Small seminars to teach research and writing would vanish. Education in ethics would be threatened. Clinical education, which best prepares students for the real practice of law, is expensive because of its hands-on approach. It is taught mainly in the third year, and it might be the first to go.
Instead of doing away with the third year entirely, some people say that the solution is for law schools to reform the last year.
One recent New York Times op-ed argued that law students should be able to take the bar exam after two years. That way schools would have to “earn the third year,” Northwestern University law dean Daniel B. Rodriguez and NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher wrote in The Times. That way, they argued, students would only stay for the third year if it offered them the kind of practical education that would actually help them be better lawyers.
“With this reform,” they argued, “law schools would have an obvious financial incentive to design creative curriculums that law students would want to pursue — a third-year program of advanced training that would allow those who wished it to become more effective litigators, specialize or better prepare for the real-world legal challenges that lie ahead.”
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