Editorial: The Law School Crisis And The Rush To Judgment
Are we then being prudent when we conclude that the third year of law school is a boring waste of time? Or is it just as reasonable to argue that the third year provides an opportunity a law student will never again have to hone her skills.
It was probably inevitable. As more and more students graduated from law school with crippling debt and meager job prospects following the Great Recession, the drumbeat for reform grew louder and louder. Soon the examination and scrutiny of contemporary legal education turned from mere criticism into a wholesale assault and then into ugly charges of unwarranted over-pricing and even fraud.
The expected return on investment could not possibly justify the cost of a three-year J.D. program — now $75,000 per year at some schools — the critics argued. Would-be law school applicants apparently agreed, because the past few years have seen a startling decrease in applications, with 2013 showing a 13 percent drop nationally over the preceding year and second- and third-tier law schools experiencing an even steeper decline.
So the experts have come forward and opened the floodgates of restructuring with proposals to cure the systemic problems allegedly corrupting our legal education system, including:
• Reducing the traditional three-year curriculum to two years; a proposal supported even by President Barack Obama in a recent speech.
• If not eliminating the third year of law school, then at least replacing it with internships or clerkships.
• And if neither of those approaches can be embraced, then devoting the third year to clinical courses only, so that new graduates would have some idea of what really happens in a law practice as opposed to a law library.
But those ideas were hardly new and profound. Indeed, a study of legal education funded by the Ford Foundation in 1970 concluded that the third year of legal study was an unnecessary expenditure of time and money, and law firm managing partners have long been loudly complaining that rookie associates come to them filled with legal theory and devoid of practical legal knowledge.
So the legal pundits, and the law school deans, and the other experts started promulgating new and different solutions to the perceived general unhappiness with the current state of legal education. "Three and Three" programs began to spring up at universities with law schools, wherein participants fulfill their core requirements of their selected undergraduate major in three years — instead of the usual four — and then use their first-year law school courses as the electives necessary to complete their undergraduate degree requirements. At the end of six years — instead of seven — they have a bachelor's and J.D. degree. Of course, those proceeding in this manner have virtually no room for electives, or year abroad studies or, perhaps, most importantly, some time off to work and gain real-life experience before undertaking the rigors of law school. Nonetheless, some two dozen law schools now offer such a program.
Others have advocated for the greater use of "reading the law" approach, which is still permitted in several states but which is utilized in only insignificant numbers. The corollary of that argument, of course, is the adoption of that process by more states.