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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Third Year: A Post by Kristen Holmquist

Walter Kirn today endorses a Utah state senator’s proposal to do away with the senior year of high school.  The proposal’s strong form met with such public resistance that it’s already been watered down – an optional senior year, a get out of jail free card, for the interested.  Kirn’s piece reminds us of what we all already accept deep down – the senior year is, academically speaking, a waste of time. 

Which has got me thinking about the third year of law school.  For those who seek it, the third year offers plenty:  a chance to dig deep into a subject area, an opportunity to broaden one’s legal training through interdisciplinary work or clinical experiences.  But the truth is that Dazed and Confused (one of the films Kirn points to as evidence of our cultural acceptance of the senior year as one of nonacademic debauchery) could have been about 3Ls.  Most are biding time before they start pulling down big salaries, or doing the public service work they came to law school to do, or beginning their post-bar-passage job searches in earnest.   The signs are easy to spot.  3Ls make it to class much less often than they once did.  When they do show up, chances are as good as not that they haven’t done the reading.   We all know this – it’s why we hate to teach big classes full of 3Ls.  Dead air.  Our anecdotal experience is matched by the evidence.  A number of years ago Mitu Gulati looked at the arguments in favor of abolishing the third year of law school.  His findings were almost comical, as his efforts to gather data on the 3L experience were repeatedly thwarted by an inability to find any 3Ls on campus to talk to.  When he  finally did scrounge up enough third-year students to survey (at 11 schools across the ranking spectrum) he found that many third years went to only about 60% of their large classes, and when they did go to class, more than half of them said that they prepared only half, or less than half, of the time.  Mitu Gulati et al., The Happy Charade: An Empirical Examination of the Third Year of Law School, 52 J. Legal Educ. 235 (2001).

And it’s not just class.  By the time their third year rolls around student leaders and most journal editors have handed over the reins to 2Ls – leaving their hands free for paid part-time work, or community involvement, or maybe just another margarita. 

So, ought we go the way of Utah?   Move graduation up to coincide with the point at which law students feel, intellectually and emotionally, that they’ve had enough? Abolish the third year?  Of course law schools’ financial incentives are more than a little different than Utah’s.  According to Utah State Senator Chris Buttars, his plan to make senior year optional could save Utah as much as $60 million.   Whereas law students pay tuition, and a lot of it.   And while tuition is but one source of funding, the loss of an entire year’s worth of it for each and every law student would be a significant cost to law schools (and their home universities) .  Yes, two-year law schools would have fewer classes to staff, and require fewer student services.  But who are we kidding.  The math does not come out in the law schools’ favor.  Faculty sizes would need to shrink significantly, and it is hard to imagine faculties (or any group of people in any workforce) choosing to eliminate a third of their jobs.

How, then, do we make the third year of law school meaningful and relevant to the majority of our students?  Many current proposals involve more clinics, more experiential opportunities – making law school look more like medical school.  For a variety of reasons, largely centered around staffing and funding, I am not convinced that legal education is ready to move to the medical school model.    There is much more to say here (and yes, of course, that means I am working on a piece on just these subjects), but I am getting ahead of myself.  The right place for the conversation to begin, it seems, is with the problem.  The do-next-to-nothing third year is indeed a problem.  If we hope to change it (and I grant that it’s a decent-sized if), we need to have a better sense of just how much nothing third years do, and why they do it. 

Kristen Holmquist is Academic Support Programs Director and Lecturer in Residene at UC Berkeley Law

Posted by Ethan Leib on February 28, 2010 at 10:46 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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A number of the underlying assumptions presented in this post are deeply flawed.

First, who accepts that senior is, academically, a waste of time? The assumption is that "we all" accept this proposition. Support for this proposition is the movie "Dazed and Confused."

Dazed and Confused is not about the academic waste of senior year. In fact, the movie does not involve anyone's senior year. Rather, it takes place the summer BEFORE senior year. Further, the message of the movie is the fundamental life questions posed to students before and during their senior year. What will they do post-graduation? How will they transition into adulthood? What kind of adult will they become? What choices will they make when confronted with adult questions? Will they follow or lead, be trailblazers or yes-men?

This assumption is more flawed than a misreading of a classic high school movie. The idea is that Senior year is academically worthless. Nothing could be further from the truth for many high school students.

My senior year was spent in 3 Advanced Placement classes. Friends at my school, and at other schools, had even more. These were not classes to be taken lightly. These were difficult classes.

Their academic and financial importance were also very serious. I have friends who were able to graduate from college early as a result of AP credits. Others, such as myself, were able to ease the transition from nurturing, small school to massive, public research university by placing out of tedious intro-level courses and lightening semester course loads.

Is this the norm? Probably not. For each school, for each school system, and for each state, the experiences of high school and senior year vary greatly. Everyone does not view senior year as, academically, a complete waste of time.

Second, the idea that third year of law school is an academic waste finds support in questionable anecdotes.

The first misconception is this:
"Most are biding time before they start pulling down big salaries, or doing the public service work they came to law school to do, or beginning their post-bar-passage job searches in earnest."

Which law school does this represent? Harvard? Yale? Boalt? It does not represent my alma mater — especially the idea that most have the opportunity to 'pull down big salaries,' or a legal community sizable enough to allow for many public service opportunities.

As for classes where 3Ls either do not show up or fail to do the reading, the onus is as much on the professor to design a class requiring participation as it is upon the law student to participate. If a 3L does not need to do the reading and does not need to attend class in order to pass, why does this both the professor? Redesign the class, or accept that your class is the kind that is passable with minimal effort. There is nothing morally or academically wrong with either. Some classes simply require more effort than others.

As for the handing the reigns of student organizations over to 2Ls, once again the question is which school do you mean? Harvard, Yale, Boalt, Vanderbilt, who? This varies by school as well.

Journals are all run differently. Some pass the workload off on 2Ls. Others do not.

Student organizations differ as well. The Mock Trial board at my school only allowed 3Ls to be members. This left 3Ls and a few qualified 2Ls to judge and score every advocacy competition we held -- and we held no less than 12 a year, not including the 6 over the summer.

Other organizations simply live and die with each incoming and outgoing class. My graduating class in law school was very active. The one after my class was less active in student organizations. The one after that was, once again, more active.

The assumption is that everything is like your old law school, or the one where you currently teach. That assumption is terribly flawed. Law schools have great variety -- there are near 200 ABA certified ones now -- and painting with such a broad brush does a disservice to so many other schools who simply do and act differently.

This is indicative of the whole debate over the so-called 'reform' of law school education. Reformers tend to be from top-tier law schools and top 100 law firms. Their perspectives are the MINORITY. Most law graduates do not work for a large law firm. Most law students do not attend top-50 or better law schools.

Yet people holding this minority view of "how things are" pretend to know what "we all think," what "we all know," and present judgments as to how "we all should proceed." All the while they remain blissfully ignorant of the MAJORITY of law students and law schools that do not share their perspectives or experiences.

One statement made by the author is that third year can be beneficial for those who make it so. I do agree with this general proposition. The question is whether we can easily measure how many 3Ls at how many law schools make it so. I do not believe this can be done, and I believe it is folly to try and extrapolate greater trends across the wide vareity of law schools based on limited perspectives.

In short, I disagree with the articles conclusion: "The do-next-to-nothing third year is indeed a problem."

It is not a problem at all law schools, and it is certainly not a problem for all law students.

I take particular umbrage at assumptions made based upon the experiences and perspectives shared only by a minority of law school students at a minority of law schools.

Harvard, Yale, Boalt, and their ilk do not speak for all law schools, and their students certainly do not speak for all law students. Remember that when you paint with broad brushes; it is too often forgotten.

Posted by: John | Mar 1, 2010 11:24:15 AM

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