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Rethinking the Third Year of Law School

By Lorin Hom, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

Much has been touted about the progressive steps law schools have taken to overhaul the traditional curriculum by inserting into the course list educational opportunities involving “innovation in legal services delivery.” From classes on electronic discovery to legal project management, law schools have found value in providing students with tools transferable to real-world practice.

Consistent with the recommendation by the ABA Task Force on Legal Education that law schools offer a space for technology instruction, experiential learning, and hands-on, practical training, most law schools afford opportunities to engage in legal clinics, and more than 35 schools have established post-graduate incubator experiences, allowing recent grads to focus on providing legal services to those in need. However, alongside these over-enrolled clinics and promising, though overdue, incubators offered only after three arduous years of study are the dreaded (coveted?) “Law and…” or “________ and the Law” classes. Is the debt in time and money paid for this third year of law school worth it? Or might “3LOL” be put to better use?

President Obama suggested as much during his bus tour on higher education policy. While acknowledging the controversial nature of his comments, Obama did not shy away from his determination that law schools would be “wise” to consider cutting down from three years to two. By clerking or practicing at a firm in lieu of taking traditional law school classes for a third year, Obama hypothesized, students would be better prepared in practice and in life, reducing the cost of school along the way. And he’s in good company—the storied Justice Benjamin Cardozo ditched his third year of law school in 1891, entering immediately into practice and leaving in his wake the inspiration to argue for bar eligibility after two years of law school, forcing law schools to earn a third year.

The straightforward argument for eliminating the third year is that law school is too long and absurdly expensive. “Just look at medical school,” comes the obvious retort. But doctors participate in two years of general medical education, then general education blended with clinical work, and finally at least three more years of highly specialized, hands-on technical training. Lawyers, on the other hand, engage in three years of general legal education before getting tossed into the world of practice with maybe one semester of practical legal experience under their belts, at best. While the life-and-death situations doctors find themselves in explain away the difference in length of time of the two schoolings, what can be said of the medical profession’s emphasis on practical, technical training, and the legal profession’s ambivalence toward it?

A third year of law school exclusively catered to gaining real-world experience should not rest merely on school administrator encouragement—it should officially be the norm. Law schools are set up to teach law students how to think like a lawyer, but what if that third year instead emphasized learning how to be a lawyer? This would mean asking students to secure full-year externships, engaging with real legal work in an area of their choosing, or participating in a school-supervised externship for the entirety of their third year, in that case paying tuition or perhaps half tuition.

Building the third year into an experience that more strongly bridges the gap between academia and practice would mean seeing an influx of students not only in clerkship positions or firm environments, but working for legal aid organizations or joining the government ranks in service of the underserved and the public at large—all while providing valuable learning opportunities classrooms simply cannot replicate.

Not only would a third-year transformation of this kind allow students already planning to enter the public interest sphere to do so one year earlier (and thus start one year better prepared), but it could support participation by those wishing to engage in this type of legal service who otherwise can’t because the massive student debt they face after three years of law school is pushing them to take the more lucrative path.

By tying the third year of law school to an official apprenticeship or externship, we would not only be eliminating a year of tuition, we would be eliminating the most expensive year of tuition––with the cost of the third year often an increased version of the first. Further, it would put to better use the hearts and minds of seasoned law students who might otherwise be wasting away in fruitless courses inapplicable to the real world. Reinventing the third year of law school so that it affords students these types of opportunities is not a move revenue-hungry institutions are necessarily inclined to make, but doing so would be seen as a “commitment to intellectual honesty.”

“I think I'm gonna take random classes in the rest of the university. I signed up for calculus this semester. The professor emailed said he thought I might be too busy with law school. I told him I won't be as busy as he might think.”


As law school graduate and regular on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox Elie Mystal put it, “If you want to spend or borrow money to take a third year of clinical programs and Law and Basket Weaving, feel free.” After getting the basics in year one and taking upper-level, specialized courses in year two, there’s little reason for the American Bar Association to require more time be spent thinking like a lawyer when the market is there for students to simply go do it.