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Critics of the nation’s legal education system are calling for an overhaul of the third year of law school, citing graduating students’ academic disengagement, poor class attendance and astronomical levels of debt. However, others say that shortening legal education to two years will invalidate the prestige of the degree and produce attorneys who are not yet ready to practice law. The big question: How does the third year of law school fit into the grand scheme of legal education? “As presently designed? Badly,” said Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. “Ideally, the third year would be used as a time for students to develop depth in some particular area or specialization but as a general matter, legal education doesn’t lead to that sort of specialization or capstone experience.” Curricular problems are one of the underlying defects of third-year education, he said. “The third year, it’s a repetition of the second year in connection with a different set of subject matters,” Tushnet said. “If there is to be a third year, it would be pedagogically and educationally more sound if it incorporated a much higher degree of specification than we now insist upon.” Richard Sander, a professor at University of California at Los Angeles School of Law and the co-author of a 2000 research paper, “The Happy Charade: An Empirical Examination of the Third Year of Law School,” agrees. “I think that [third year] currently is largely treated as an add-on that increases the prestige of a J.D. degree but does not add much substance,” he said. “Law schools generally weaken in the third year and don’t expect students to be engaged full time.” Also, he said, professors often do not take attendance in classes, which are often poorly attended. Third-year curriculum, he said is “largely comprised of courses that are variations on what is taught in the second year. The courses reflect teachers’ research interests instead of students’ professional development.” Sander said he believes that beefing up the curriculum with more clinical courses could bolster the value of the third year. Big problem: money The high levels of debt burdening students upon graduation, some say, is reason enough to eliminate the third year of law school or make it optional. Paul D. Carrington, a professor at Duke Law School in Durham, N.C., said the biggest problem with a three-year legal education is money, which can force students away from lower-paying fields such as public interest law. “My concern is that the social cost is considerable because many students leave in so much debt,” he said. “There are not a lot of us who worry about it, so not much will be done with it. But I continue to believe we should be a little more flexible on how long it should take to become a lawyer. If I were czar, I’d make the third year optional.” The University of Dayton School of Law in Dayton, Ohio, has responded to concerns about the third year with accelerated programs that allow students to graduate in two years over five semesters instead of the traditional six.

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