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The Downhill Road from 1L to 3L

A 3L in a ‘law-and-blank’ class yesterday.

“One of the well-known facts about law school is it never took three years to do what we are doing; it took maybe two years at most, maybe a year-and-a-half,” Larry Kramer, the former dean of Stanford Law, said in a 2010 speech. The continuing existence of the third year of law school is generally held to be one of the basic structural defects in our current legal education model, alongside the contracted job market and soaring tuition. There have been efforts to address the problem, the latest being NYU’s announced overhaul of its third year curriculum.

Yet these attempts to redefine what the 3L year means appear to many like half-measures at best, “lipstick on a pig” at worst. As we noted back in November, Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana/Maurer has made a sweeping proposal that calls for a special new program for 3Ls by a coalition of willing law schools. The 3Ls would embark on a skills-based, teamwork-heavy course of study in partnership with law firms who agree to employ the students, albeit at a reduced rate. Also, there is a proposal currently before the New York Bar that would allow students to take the bar exam after two years. These students would not obtain a J.D. unless they return for their third year, but would be eligible for a bar card.

In assessing the NYU proposal (basically an increase in study abroad and specialty courses), Professor Kenneth Anderson argues that law schools have allowed educational incentives (i.e., learning to how to be a lawyer) and credentialing incentives (i.e., becoming an attractive job candidate) to drift apart: “The problem lies in how very, very unattractive we’ve institutionally made [students’] incentives – and the price tag attached to what is essentially a bet rather than investment. It’s a bet with many more bad payoffs than good ones.”

All the discussion and debate about the three-year law school model focuses, understandably, on the utility of that third year. We thought it would be interesting to have a look at our survey data to get a sense of how the experience of law students changes over time. The ATL Insider Survey asks law students and alumni to rate their schools in academic instruction, career counseling, financial aid advising, practical/clinical training, and social life. We wondered how, if at all, these perceptions differ between 1Ls and 3Ls….

Consider these two quotes from our survey, responses to the question “What would be useful for a potential applicant to know about your school?” No points for guessing which one is from the fresh-faced 1L and which is from the cynical 3L:

“I have not purchased books for my classes in two years. I go to class only to meet attendance requirements, and even then don’t pay attention. I use old outlines on exams … Law school is a complete joke.”

“I do not think that I could have a more relaxed and fun time. Of course we all work hard, but there is no feeling of competition. People here are very happy for the most part. Everyone is confident that they will get a great job (if you consider big law to be a great job), regardless of whether he or she is first or last in the class.”

These are students at the same school. Clearly, they represent different extremes of student sentiment toward their schools, but are suggestive of the basic trajectory of students’ feelings about their schools. Here is a comparison between 1Ls and 3Ls in the ATL Insider Survey ratings categories mentioned above (ratings scale ascends from 1 to 4):

So it isn’t just in some areas where the student perception of the school declines over time — it’s in all of them. This seems to be the 3L math:

Pointlessness of the third year
+ Imminent entry into glutted job market
+ A serious debt burden
= An erosion of her relationship with her school

It’s never a good sign when the longer one is exposed to an institution, the lower one’s regard for that institution becomes. Just something for the schools to keep in mind as they try to find a way out of their current predicament.

If you haven’t done so already, please feel free to take the ATL Insider Survey and share your views on your law school or law firm.

(hidden for your protection)

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