3L: A Story Nobody Wants To Hear
The New York Times has a lengthy story on the failure of law school to teach people how to be lawyers.
Now, it's hard for most law schools to teach people how to teach students how to be specific kinds of lawyers. Law schools send students everywhere across the country, and you can't teach state-specific practice for everyone – or even, in some cases, the majority of your students (take schools like Duke or Michigan, which send the overwhelming majority of their students out of state).
The piece does a good job at pointing out an underlying problem with law schools as they're currently structured: you borrow a lot of money for three years to come out knowing incredibly little about how to practice law. However, I'm not sure that the problem is necessarily what law schools teach; instead, I think the problem is that law schools teach it for so long.
During my third year of law school, I was the managing editor of a journal, I was co-chair of an organization that funded first year students doing summer public interest work, I was on our moot court board. At some point, I went to class. Even in the subjects I was engaged in, there was just a sense of fatigue with the entire process. Real life doesn't involve four-hour exams. Real life doesn't involve the gradual progression of topics through the lens of appellate decisions. It's time do some law here, people.
The first year of law school is a shock. You get thrown into reading cases despite not understanding procedural history or the important operative facts; because you're reading appellate decisions, you probably have no idea how the case got there. You probably think the important point is whether the plaintiff won or lost, when what you're supposed to learn is that, procedurally, you must state a claim for relief in your initial pleading. You stop thinking in one dimension, and start thinking across multiple dimensions.
The second year of law school is an adaptation of what you learned the first year, but without the handholding. The third year is…there. It's long, and it's boring, and it's a good way to spend $50,000 waiting to take the bar exam. (This isn't to say the first or second years are pedagogically perfect. It's simply to say they serve a purpose that the third year doesn't.)
The third year of law school, if it's to be kept (and there's a good argument for not keeping it, given the way law schools are currently structured), should focus on teaching, at least generally, the ins and outs of legal practice. You take a course on it your first year, but at many schools it's not graded. The message you get is that it's the least important part of the curriculum, and so you churn out a terrible couple of motions, learn a few Bluebook rules and take your pass with all the pride you'd assign to an $8,000 certificate commemorating your minimal effort at citing four cases.
Law schools will invariably tell you that their mission is to teach you how to think like a lawyer. At some point, however, you've learned how to think like a lawyer, and the mission should switch to thinking like a lawyer. The first part is valuable, but the second part is what you're ostensibly doing with the rest of your professional life. Graduating from law school requires a third year (and $30-50,000) spent learning and doing the same things you spent the prior two years doing, and doesn't seem to produce appreciably better legal minds than the first two years do.