Thoughts on Practical Legal Education III

As you know, we have often commented upon practical legal education (including yesterday, when our own Frances Zacher remarked upon President Obama’s recent suggestion that law school be shortened to two years). This topic, of course, is in the news again, and Steph Kimbro of the North Carolina Law Blog offered her thoughts recently on this issue:

My concern is that if the law school length were cut down to only two years, more of the practical courses that do exist in the curriculum would have to be cut. The bar exam isn’t changing any time soon, then students would still be hard pressed to take all the substantive bar courses and the practice areas they are interested in only in two years. That may push the practical skills, legal writing, law practice management courses, incubators, clinics, mock trial, law review and many other extras further to the side.

Kimbro makes a good point. Law students, being practical, are going to maximize their time in school in order to prepare for the bar examination. Presumably, any reform in the length or substance of legal education would likely leave the historic first year intact. Students will still be called upon to take contracts, property, and criminal law, and learn historic concepts but the law of no jurisdiction in particular. The value of the first year – despite the lack of reference to any specific state’s statutes or cases – is that it introduces students to legal concepts and begins to train them to think like lawyers. The second year, of course, depending on one’s school, may be comprised of mostly electives, and the stereotype of one’s third year is that it is spent mostly on the golf course and/or seeking future employment. That is certainly not the case at all schools. However, perhaps it is time to transform the third year from electives and fluff into a thorough and comprehensive practice and advocacy program. As we have noted before, there is no reason for there to be a “gap” between one’s law school matriculation and the beginning of one’s practice in the legal profession (despite the fact that some states, like South Carolina, require mandatory courses “bridging the gap” between those two points). But why is there a gap in the first place?

If students are going to go into significant debt in order to obtain a law degree, they should leave school with more training than they have. The debate should not be about whether or not law school should be shorter but whether the surplusage of the third year should be transformed into something far more substantive.