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Third-year law school: Jury’s out on its value

At many top law schools, the third year is a halcyon interlude between rigorous introductory courses and the long hours awaiting graduates at law firm jobs. Some educators want to see the third year beefed up academically. Others want it dropped.
Melinda Warthman, right, plays with her daughters, Mariell, 6, left, and Maggie, 2, at her Ohio home in this July 13 file photo. Warthman teaches communications at the University of Dayton but wants to boost her credentials with a law degree. David Kohl / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Now a corporate lawyer, Jennifer Leong fondly recalls her third and final year of law school. A job secured, she traveled frequently. Her courses included feminist jurisprudence and a half-semester bankruptcy seminar — each carefully chosen to get her weekend started by Wednesday afternoon.

“A lot of beer and softball,” recalled Leong, who got her University of Virginia law degree in 2000. “Third year was probably the best year of my life.”

At many top law schools, the third year is famously relaxed, a halcyon interlude between rigorous introductory courses and the long hours that await graduates at law firm jobs. There is research and volunteer work, but also a lot of bar-hopping and little studying: 15 hours per week, according to one survey at 11 law schools, compared to 33 hours for first-year students.

A pricey vacation
But if it’s an extended vacation, it’s pricey: $30,000 or more at top private schools. And at many law schools, grads can’t count on the six-figure salaries awaiting many at the most prestigious programs, so an extra year of debt is a big burden.

Some educators want to see the third year beefed up, arguing the law is more complex than ever and future lawyers need more preparation, both for the bar and exam and for their careers. But others want it dropped.

Critics say there’s so much law that students will learn most of it on the job, anyway. They see the third year as a revenue racket, a full-employment scheme for faculty that comes at the expense of non-elite school students and discourages them from taking public service jobs.

It’s a periodic debate in legal education, and with tuition going ever higher, there are signs it’s heating up again.

ABA sets new guidelines
The American Bar Association recently updated its accreditation guidelines for law schools to require more total minutes of instruction, but offering schools more flexibility in how that’s structured.

With eased workload, some wonder whether third year of law school is worth it

That prompted the University of Dayton to announce a program starting this fall designed to help students earn a J.D. in two years, including summer work. It has no fewer requirements and doesn’t charge less, but it saves students a year of living expenses.

Dayton was trying to reach out to students like Melinda Warthman, a 33-year-old mother of two who will start the program next year. Warthman teaches communications at Dayton but wants to boost her credentials with a law degree.

“I think for a lot of people looking at law school, they read the requirements, it’s sort of off-putting,” she said. “If you’re married and you have a mortgage and you have children and you have a job, that just seems like, ’That’s not something I can do right now.”’

But two years of school, instead of three, is a sacrifice that Warthman thinks she can make. Dayton officials predict other schools will follow their lead.

If so, it could encourage less-indebted new lawyers “to pursue some ideal other than the highest pay,” said Harvard Law School graduate William Strauss, who has spoken out against the third year.

Graduate-level debt
According to the ABA, the median debt for 2004 graduates of private law schools was $98,000; at public schools it was $67,000. The organization has concluded two-thirds of law graduates cannot afford to take lower-paying public interest jobs.

But there are also signs the third year is as entrenched as ever. The ABA’s requirements are still stringent. The legal profession wants to keep quality — and in some critics’ eyes, salaries — high, so it doesn’t want to make it too easy to become an attorney. Also, the legal recruiting process is built around a three-year schedule; summers are when law students earn money and take the internships that lead to jobs, so many will be reluctant to give them up.

Besides, many third-year law students do work hard. Increasingly, they are getting hands-on training in legal clinics. In the classroom, some educators say third year is when students learn the law they most need to know. University of Chicago Law Dean Saul Levmore says students there are more likely to suggest adding a fourth year than dropping the third.

‘The Happy Charade’
Jeff Lewis, dean at St. Louis University, says he’s pushing for more rigor and specialization in the third-year curriculum. He also says the final-year course he teaches is packed with attentive students — though that may be unusual.

David Wilkins, a Harvard Law professor, recalls struggling to conduct a survey of third-year law students because so few showed up to class. In a paper about the third year titled “The Happy Charade,” three scholars, including prominent UCLA professor Richard Sander, estimated that the 1,100 third-years he surveyed attended no more than 60 percent of their large classes.

About two in five agreed with the statement “the third year of law school is largely superfluous.”

For Jennifer Leong, however, it was a heck of a good time. She says some of her classmates worked hard, but many did not. As for the debt, she says, “once you get past the $40,000 barrier, what’s another $20,000?”