There have been murmurs for some time now, but the discussion about giving law students the option to forgo a third year has been picking up steam. This op-ed piece in the New York Times makes a strong case for the option and it’s one with which I largely agree.
The most obvious reason to favor the optional third year of law school is the reduction of debt. With the American legal job market contracting through automation and outsourcing, the amount of debt with which law school graduates are saddled is becoming ever more onerous. Reducing that debt by a third would no doubt ease the squeeze a bit. Law school would become a more attractive post-graduate option, thus enlarging the potential pool of lawyers and arguably enriching the profession through a reduction in exclusivity.
On a more personal note, as someone who graduated from law school and passed the California Bar Exam, I believe I could easily have done the same with two years of legal education. Did I take some interesting and enriching classes in my third year? Certainly. That said, the bulk of the doctrine covered on the bar exam was covered in my first two years. Had I eliminated some of the less bar-relevant courses from my second year (and replaced them with courses germaine to the exam), I’m confident I could have been fully prepared to take and pass the exam by the end of that year.
That said, the third year of law school shouldn’t be eliminated altogether. Making the year optional could theoretically incentivize law schools to step their collective game up in order to convince law students that spending money and forgoing a year of earning potential is worth the time and money. As the Times article speculates, law schools could develop programs that focus more on the practical skills necessary for those who want to pursue specific areas or types of practice. Doing so would almost certainly be a step up and would no doubt increase the immediate earning potential of those who participate by giving them on a running start on their legal careers. And while I don’t necessarily think it’s realistic to expect law schools to make the third year optional, any change in the status quo will almost certainly be an improvement.