Does the third year of law school add all that much? A recent post by Denise Howell on Between Lawyers says this:
The 2005 Annual Report from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which "gives schools an idea of how well students are learning and what they put into and get out of their law school experience" (and is the basis for the article Dennis [Kennedy] linked earlier), is here. (Via Genie Tyburskie) "[T]hird-year students look similar to first- and second-year students in areas such as critical thinking, effective writing, and work-related knowledge or skills." If you were to survey practicing lawyers, you'd find resounding agreement on two points: very little about law school prepared them for for the bar exam, and even less prepared them for the actual practice of law. So why not just axe the third year? (My response: 'cause when else for the ensuing 40-odd years do former law students get to goof off?)
Check out her post here. There are some very good links and some comments, including one by yours truly. In particular, look at Dennis Kennedy's related post on the same site.
Denise's answer is appropriately tongue in cheek. But is the unstated suggestion of this dialogue that a 2-year law school would suffice? Yes, I think it is. Is that suggestion right? Not to me.
In a field that is literally splintering and hyper-specializing, the third year of law school allows people to take courses in specific areas. If I were the U.S. Law School Czar, I would think very hard about actually adding a FOURTH year. (Of course, I might feel differently if I had not already graduated.)
What is the number one complaint practitioners have about law schools? That "law schools don't prepare students for the practice of law." If I had a dime for every time I've heard that one I'd be rich and living on a beach somewhere.
So what is the answer to that problem? Easy: to teach people not just how to think like lawyers, but also how to act like lawyers.
The question really boils down to this: what are law schools supposed to be? Traditional graduate schools, or trade schools? Should they focus on theory and doctrine? Or on practical instruction, such as how to write and file a motion, maintain files, bring in a new client, etc.? The easy (and right) answer is "both of the above." Law schools are a hybrid institution. You learn the theories underlying a rich discipline, but you also really should be learning the key basics and tricks of the trade. And you can't do that in two years. We don't really do it well enough in three.
So, while law schools are not just supposed to train technical monkeys, they do a great disservice if they do not give their graduates the rudimentary practice skills to succeed. And that's where the third year of law school should come in. (And my dream fourth year, which might be part internship with a firm, as law schools in some countries like Canada do it).
The point is that if students have to learn practical skills solely on the job, that has enormously negative effects. First, it undercuts the validity of law schools and makes them little more than a 3-year barrier to entry to the profession. And second, it hurts the graduates. And aren't they the ones we are supposed to be serving in the first place?