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March 16, 2004

Jensen: To L With 3L

by Guest Contributor

Tony Jensen's practice emphasizes employment and related business litigation and counseling for executives and employers. Tony practices law at Gallo & Associates, a Los Angeles firm specializing in executive employment negotiation, employment rights enforcement, and commercial litigation. Tony is also admitted in New York, where he was formerly associated with the firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobsen.-Ed.

While the ever-pragmatic B-schools mint MBA's in just two short years--and sometimes less--American law schools and the powers that accredit them cling to a third year requirement that does not serve the majority of students or the profession.

Now that many U.S. law schools have introduced innovation and reform in their first year curricula by emphasizing writing, smaller class-sizes, and "legal methods" type courses, isn't it time that law schools re-examined and revamped the 3L experience?

Alan Dershowitz once suggested (to no one in particular in the hallway on the way into an ethics class he gave a few years ago) that students who complete the second year should be given a choice: (1) Remain at law school for a third year to engage in serious master' thesis or dissertation level research and writing under the supervision of faculty or (2) Leave the academy and commence a full-time practical legal apprenticeship.

I was a 3L at the time and Professor Dershowitz' suggestion made sense to me. I, like many of my 3L classmates, had sensed a steep drop-off in the learning curve during the third year. And 3L's were, in large number, no longer interested in turning up the academic volume. For many, the recruiting and job search process had been addressed and the pressure to make the best grades possible was gone. Low pressure led to low preparation and that led to low quality classes--this, in turn, encouraged low attendance. Much--though certainly not all--of my 3L academic experience was marked by this ebb in academic energy.

Certainly, there were "third year" writing requirements that, on the surface, would seem to have required focus and attention. But the requirement seemed to have been worked into the curriculum as a pesky afterthought. The writing requirement made a show of the school's concern with its students' writing, but was not something the school actually mounted any organized effort to administer. Consequently, I observed, many of my classmates devised and carried off plans for meeting the writing requirement that, shall we say, cannot be described as "serious." Many of the more serious writers (or those who had the diligence and/or good fortune to hit upon a topic of interest to some faculty member early on) had completed their third year writing requirement in the second year anyway.

One suspects at times that the 3L year is merely a shameless "fundraising" year for the law schools. Students must pony up another full year's tuition and living expenses and, indeed, many must simply borrow it all. When I graduated from law school in 1996, that meant about $35,000--today, the annual budget for students at competitive (and some not so competitive) law schools is significantly higher. For their money, these same third year students are retained in an academically lack-luster setting, while simultaneously accomplishing little in the way of professional growth. Students who avail themselves of clinical experiences to a meaningful extent, I acknowledge, do counteract this trend.

Law schools should look hard at creating two 3L routes: a "dissertation/research" track that would keep interested third years around to pursue scholarly angles on the law and a "practicum" track that would either graduate students early or free them to begin paid apprenticeships, in any geographic location, that would satisfy any remaining degree requirements. Or maybe 3L's should simply be given the added option of an early departure from law school coupled with a practical internship that culminates in the bar exam. Too many 3L's are just marking time-serving no clients, serving no law firm, making no money, and making no knowledge. We can't blame 3L's for their torpor-they need the degree. But three years of the law classroom is a long time. Law is an applied humanity.

Our current 3L system too often warehouses talented third years and shelters them from the practical realities of law practice. Why, for instance, aren't 3L's at most "better" law schools given access to courses on the nuts and bolts of state procedure in the jurisdictions in which they plan to practice?

To 'ell with 3L? Maybe not. But the current 3L format should now command the attention and creativity of talented faculty and administrators at our top law schools.

March 16, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack

Admittedly, having yet to enroll in law school, I can't speak to this issue with any great experience or knowledge, but your take conforms to just about everything I've heard & read about the 3L year. My basic reaction has simply been--do away with it. But I like your idea of a split track much better--that is, the dissertation/practicum notion.

Hopefully this'll be an issue that receives greater debate & consideration, but I'm sure any change will come glacially.

Posted by: Visible Hand at March 16, 2004 11:17 AM

I've often thought that it's past time for law schools to reintroduce the LLB, LLM, and LLD system, roughly speaking 18-24 mos, 30-36 mos, and 48-60 mos of education, respectively.

I loved law school -- even as a 3L -- for the chance to take interesting classes in subjects that were intellectually stimulating. I went to law school because I liked the subject of law, not necessarily because I wanted to be a lawyer. I sympatheized then, and still do, with my friends and classmates who went to law school because they wanted to become lawyers. For them, most of the second and third years were a waste of time and very unsatisfying. They were trapped in classes they didn't want to take with subjects that did not interest them.

A few caveats:

1) I think upper-level classes (2L & 3L) can be beneficial even to those seeking a "practical" education because they allow people (if so inclined) to practice and sharpen their analytitical skills. Even though I will never practice tax law (part of an oath I swore in exchange for passing the final), the experience tackling a new and difficult area of the law helped me, I think.

2) Some areas of the law may be suited to an 18-24 mo. LLB program, i.e., general commerical litigation, general corporate practice, antitrust, &tc &tc. Other areas, like taxation or bankruptcy, may require an LLM (30-36 months) before someone could be ready to even apprentice. My guess is that LLD's would be reserved for people who wanted to teach, or for very advanced research in a narrow area (a la JSD's).

3) As Tony mentioned, some (or alot) of the good could come just through allowing more 3Ls access to practicums and/or apprenticeships. (Including clinics dealing with transactional law, which I understand are few and far between.)

Posted by: Simon at March 16, 2004 03:09 PM

Simon's comment about encouraging more transactional clinical experiences is intriguing--if someone could figure out how to do it, it would sell like hotcakes to law students I am sure, judging from the interest level in transactions I see from the law students we interview re clerkships...

Posted by: Tony Jensen at March 16, 2004 04:10 PM


There are some such clinics. (Or, at least one: see UM's Legal Assistance for Urban Communities description at http://cgi2.www.law.umich.edu

I've heard there are others, including at Harvard, but have not spent time researching the issue.

I don't see why, as a general matter, such programs would not be available to any law school willing to devote some time and faculty to them.


Posted by: Simon at March 16, 2004 05:51 PM

As a prospective Michigan student, thanks for posting that Simon!

Posted by: Visible Hand at March 16, 2004 08:12 PM
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