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Eliminating Law Schools' Third Year Misses the Mark

by Nora V. Demleitner
Dean, Washington and Lee School of Law

Legal education struggles with one major issue: cost for value provided. But suggestions that a solution is doing away with the third year of law school miss the mark.

At Washington and Lee we have comprehensively revamped that generally maligned and underutilized third year to make it a unique experience, to build the bridge between the classroom and the law office.  The third year demands in-depth and hands-on training in both transactional and litigation practice; direct work with clients and attorneys; the application of problem-solving skills through successive writing experiences and presentations, done in teams, by allowing the students to bring together doctrine, critical reasoning and practice-based skills.

This is the type of curriculum that reinforces what it means to be a lawyer in a pressured but still reflective setting, which is based on an all-encompassing experience.  The required clinic/externships and the wide range of available practicum-type settings bring together the best of the bench, the bar and academia who combine to teach our students to address sophisticated legal questions and train them on best practices to provide thoughtful lawyering services.  We deeply appreciate the commitment – and financial investment — of those forward-looking attorneys and the organizations with which they are affiliated to bringing the best of their training programs in-house with us.

The third year is invaluable in turning law students into legal professionals, in making professional thinking and work habits routine, in exposing law students to the excitement, the challenges and the disappointments of law practice.  In a time where ever more knowledge is available, when navigating society and business are more complicated than ever, when law is more sophisticated and more all-encompassing, decreasing the length of legal education by 33 percent seems curious and ill-advised.  If this development is merely based on cost, it misses a major point — the increasing lack of professional training in practice.

The value provided in that third year internalizes many of the costs previously absorbed by law firms, which used to train young lawyers but are ever less willing to provide that service because of cost pressures.  It also allows law students who discover that the practice of law does not suit them — in contrast to their previous educational experience — to seek out other non-legal careers that present them with opportunities to use their legal skills, albeit in different environments.

For the Washington and Lee program, the question arises why students and the educational institution should alone fund the value provided to private, for-profit enterprises through the third year.

Nora V. Demleitner is dean and Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee.

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