Third Year of Law School Should Be Practical. Period!


In this upcoming lawsuit, 43 year old Georgetown law student, Rodger Gordon has a valid point and is taking a leave of absence from school to appeal his recent court loss to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming his third year should be optional – that the first two years is more than adequate to sit for the bar exam and he should not have to lose another year of his life or incur substantial debt when it’s not necessary especially since he’s not getting anything of value in his third year.

This jibes very nicely with the recent Carnegie study which says law schools are not providing enough hands-on training to students to make them truly qualified, something I’ve been advocating for almost two decades.

Given the increased competition in the job market, there can be no question that experience and practical training speak louder than a respectable grade point average and a semester as an academic research assistant.

Some are nostalgic about their experiences in law school, nose to a dusty book in the corner of the library contemplating changing the world.  But, guest what folks? Idealizing law school is just not going to cut it in today’s marketplace if you want to become a lawyer who can actually pay her law school loans back while finding a meaningful place in the profession and business of law.

We are not suggesting that law schools abandon the promotion of intellectual thought and discourse, but we believe that law school administrators must adapt to what is happening off-campus in the legal community. Law students, with the support of the institutions, should approach the third year as the primary time to get their hands dirty, have some real world training and generally find out what “practicing law” is all about. Today’s third-year law students are no longer willing to incur thousands of dollars in debt only to have professors “bore them to death,” as the old joke goes.

In view of the job marketplace, law schools should prepare students for the real world by providing them with marketable skills. For instance, electronic discovery is a hot topic in litigation, and those with knowledge of the process and the review platforms are at a premium. If recent graduates were able to step right in with little or no formal on-the-job training on e-discovery issues, they would be very marketable.

Schools should consider a “How to Be a Solo Practitioner” class for third-years. One of the benefits about being an attorney is the ability to work for one’s self, rather than for someone else. More and more young lawyers are setting out on their own (or in small partnerships). If law students learn how to provide basic services (estate plans, simple contracts, etc.) and how to run the business side of a small office, they can tread water as solo practitioners. By extension, courses on topics such as “Marketing and Networking Strategies” and “Client Counseling Issues” should also be offered.

Of course, I take umbrage the author sees solo practitioners as ‘treading water’ and not as a viable professional decision which is part of the greater problem.  However, just the mere mention of Marketing and Networking strategies and technology as responsible courses in law school should be hailed as miraculous but instead it sends most law schools into a state of hysteria.  Why?  Because they don’t get it as they sit (falsely) protected in their tenured towers.  You get someone discussing cloud computing or social media and they feel their fortress is being dismantled one stone at a time!  The irony, offer these types of courses in a third year and you will actually strengthen your position as a law school going forward.  The students are demanding it.  The clients are demanding it.  The profession is demanding.  Wake up!

Law school MUST provide practical training. It is not a luxury.  It is a mandate.

What do you think?

(H/T to Debra Bruce)

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9 comments on “Third Year of Law School Should Be Practical. Period!

  • Well, of course law schools should! Law school is a type of professional school and should teach what the profession demands. Clinics and externships are great practical teachers that I did while in school. However, not every law student wants to be a lawyer, so forcing them to take classes that will not relate to their goals would be wrong. There should be great electives, like clinics and externships.

  • I agree whole heartedly that such classes should be available to third year students. I admit to struggling to figure it all out as I venture on my own. Anthony, I don’t know about you, but nothing was “forced” in my third year except to the extent that I had to take some courses because they would be on the bar exam even though I had no intention of practicing those areas of law. Now I liked the academic and intellectual side of third year classes, but throwing in something practical (like IOLTA trust accounting) would have been way more appropriate.

  • Long range: I think we need to rethink–and in many areas are beginning to rethink–our society’s commitment to institutions of higher education as the gatekeepers of all sorts of occupations. A litle over a century ago most lawyers were trained by apprenticeship (“reading law”). Were they poorer lawyers, was their view of the law more constricted and less socially responsible than today’s lawyers? Was Lincoln inferior to the associates and partners at Big Law, or, for that matter, your favorite contemporary solo? We have a system that is just too expensive and administratively clumsy. We need to think about moving on.

    • Daniel,
      I have read the reason lawyers in the USA are not called “doctor” despite having a Juris Doctorate, when in most of the rest of the developed world they are called “doctor”. It goes back to that time when lawyers were trained through apprenticeships and did not have degrees. Now that practice of law in all states requires a JD, we should all be called “doctor”.

  • I absolutely agree with this thinking. Although I finished in the top 10% of my class, I had no idea how to physically accomplish commencing a case when I began my “real life” training after the bar exam.

    I would be absolutely lost without my mentors. Although they don’t always have the time to explain everything step-by-step, between access to their files and picking their brains over lunch or coffee, I am learning how to practice law – something that I believed that I had gone to law school to learn.

    On a bright note – the class that follows mine has a requirement of a clinical component. They must be involved in one of the law school’s three clinics, an externship, or the moot court or trial team programs for at least one semester to graduate.

  • It would be okay if the law school curriculum was based on practical rather than academic studies in the third year, but you couldn’t really call it a doctorate, and I wouldn’t want that to be the terminal degree available to law students. I think that practical traiing in the third year is okay, but it certianly not be entirely practical. I personally appreciated the doctrinal courses I took, and frankly, I use a lot of the things I learned in those third year doctrinal courses all the time in my first year as a solo practitioner. The practical training involved in learning to execute the duties of a lawyer should be learned early, but not at the expense of doctrine. If you’re bnored with the program, then maybe a trip to Vegas.

  • “Treading Water?” Really…I believe I’ve read that something like 65% of all attorneys practice in a solo or small firm setting. I am frustrated by the apparent refusal by law schools and legal academics to admit that practicing law is a business, a business that must be marketed to make a PROFIT! I believe that with increased technology and future client demands nearly all law will be practiced in solo offices, mostly web-based offices. Law schools will have to adjust their attitudes and start teaching students how to practice law. There’s an idea…

  • This is an interresting dicsussion – Looking back I recall being extremely anxious to be done with the third year and get out practicing – although a close friend at the time who was about to enter med school settled me down a bit bit by pointing out that he had 4 years, internships and residency standing between him and his career! I am also reminded that when I began I noticed that many older attorneys had the LLB and am wondering how that system worked and why it was displaced by the JD…

  • I have to agree with Dan. We have a legal education system which is simply too expensive, cumbersome and in many ways doesn’t address the needs of the profession or the students they are graduating into today’s world. While there should be no compromise on basic doctrinal law and ethics, there should equally not be a total disregard for practicality and functionality. It is easy to see how e-discovery and technology should be mandated as part of a legal education because there is already so much case law on lack of proper use out there. However, it should be equally important to take a legal clinic case from start to finish, motion work, calendaring, working with clients and opposing counsel. To say some people simply don’t want to practice law and are getting the degree for another reason isn’t a good enough reason for the law schools not to do their job. Students may have the best laid plans…it’s the school’s job to prepare them to practice whether they opt to practice or not. The students will be glad they were prepared and the law school will be much better off financially for doing so because these will be the schools future students opt to attend regardless of ranking as the top schools get priced out of reach for the majority.

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