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Would losing the 3L year really reduce students' costs? Bloggers discuss

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Discussion of a two-year J.D. has picked up since President Barack Obama said in a speech at Binghamton University in New York that he thought “that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.” He suggested that students would be better off clerking at a law firm—even if the pay was low—than attending a third year of law school, and posited that it would help students’ debt loads.

Blogging law professors are glad the president has weighed in on the discussion, but think Obama was perhaps a bit hasty.

At Prawfsblawg, St. Louis University Law professor Matt Bodie thinks that if the J.D. standard became two years, then law schools would probably end up charging the same amount for two years as they once did for three. What would there be to prevent them from doing it? “What if, in the new two-year law school, we added a clinical component, an externship component, and a 10-person small section component to the basic contracts class, and then assigned it to a doctrinal professor, two clinical professors, and four adjuncts? That would be a better class, no? But it’d also be a lot more expensive. A school could easily justify spending $60,000 or more a year per student—again, if the market rewarded schools for offering such classes.”

Albany Law School professor Mary Lynch has this to say about Obama’s “shoot from the hip” remark: “The President confuses unpaid interning with a ‘clinical experience,’ ” she writes at Best Practices for Legal Education. “As we know from the medical and other professional settings, clinical experience is NOT the same as allowing barely trained law students to ‘HAVE AT IT’ in a practice setting. Nor is every environment appropriate for clinical training and supervision. The whole point of ‘clinical education’ is supervision, feedback, mentoring, and learning to learn from observation, experience and mistakes.”

New York University Law School professor Stephen Gillers raised a number of questions at Legal Ethics Forum: “Should there be post-graduate experiential requirements for a two-year graduate before she is fully licensed? What should they be? If a requirement is some sort of law office clerkship, how can we be confident that those positions will be available and that graduates will not be exploited?”

The Law School Tuition Bubble’s Matt Leichter doesn’t think changing the third year to clerking would necessarily be cheap for students. “Law schools can use their market positions to charge students for firm placement, wiping out any monetary gains to the students.”

Number-crunching aside, University of California at Berkeley law professor Dan Farber notes at Legal Planet that cutting the 3L year might rob students of a chance to specialize. “A two-year law school wouldn’t leave any time for specialized courses like environmental law that aren’t on the bar exam,” Farber wrote. “It would also leave no time to participate in law school’s environmental law clinics or environmental law reviews. (Or for corporate tax or intellectual property, for that matter). To the extent that education in environmental law is valuable to students, another mechanism would be needed: maybe a master’s degree program, maybe just very extensive Continuing Legal Education programs from private companies.”

And Los Angeles lawyer and At Counsel Table blogger Alex Craigie (who states for the record that he graduated from law school in 1993 with $80,000 in debt that took him 11 years to pay off), based on his own experience, writes that the 3L year should stay. “Beyond reducing the cost/debt of law school, it will not benefit newly-minted lawyers, who would spring from the costly but generally encouraging womb of law school with even less to offer than at present,” he writes. “It will not benefit most law firms that (unlike my own) do not or cannot afford to invest in providing their lawyers with systematic, ongoing training on how to write, argue, advocate at trial or negotiate. Most importantly, it will not benefit clients who find themselves saddled with a new lawyer that was not sufficiently trained before being ejected from the nest.”

That said, if increasing the amount of real-world experience students receive before they graduate can be accomplished at a lower cost to them, “then it would be a win-win.”

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