Okay, we're mostly law professors here, and I've mostly avoided weighing in on the various debates going on about the changes in the legal profession and the effect those changes are going to have on legal education. Most of my reticence has had to do with my faith in the business cycle. The current downturn is not the new normal, and my sense is that the bigger risks come from "oversteer" than from the current state of the market.
But, an op-ed in the Times and a conference at NYU have driven me to break my silence. The conference is to discuss whether New York State should allow law students to sit for the bar after their second year of law school. It's not a crazy idea, but the devil is in the details. There are a lot of good reasons to do this. None of them are mentioned in the Op-ed.
The driving force behind the change derives from a bit of "lore" about the third year of law school. The third year is described as "those famous semesters in which, as the saying goes, law schools “bore you to death” and student attendance drops like a stone?" I remember this view of the third year. It prevailed back in the 1980s when I went to law school. It was prevalent at elite law schools where most students had their post-graduation jobs lined up after their second summer. This was indeed a problem, but not a problem caused by the third year of law school. It was a problem caused by the competition for top law students during a boom.
This has not been my experience with regard to third year law students. I teach at an excellent law school, but it is not a top ten law school. Many of our students get big firm jobs, but a large chunk of the class is hired during or after completion of the third year. In my experience, this has meant that our students remain engaged through the third year. This is because their grades still matter, but more importantly, they use many of the advanced upper level courses to develop saleable expertise. They take advanced courses in bankruptcy, securities regulation or tax, if they want to be business lawyers. They participate in moot court teams, clinics and trial advocacy classes if they want to become litigators. In short, the third year matters to theses students. It matters a lot.
Now letting students sit for the bar after their second year does not necessarily meant that students would leave law school after their second year. First, New York is the only state considering this rule change. Without a three year degree, the students would be immobile. Second, a law student who has passed the bar can do some interesting things. Externships might be more valuable if the student lawyer could engage in the practice of law. Medical education does not end when med students pass their boards. Internship and residency continue the educational process.
This does not mean that getting rid of the third year of law school is a good idea. It was bad for the profession when students checked out during their third year. It would be bad for the profession to turn out badly educated lawyers as well.