I was a first-year law student frantically preparing for my final exams when an upperclassman friend told me, as I sat in the bowels of my university’s main library, “Just finish first year and you’ve graduated.” Utter bunk, I thought.
Several months later, as a wise old 2L, I found myself offering this same line to other first-years and prospective law students. The recipients of my guidance — haunted by the specter of a full three years of academic hell, cutthroat competition, and intimidation from professors — were delighted.
To be sure, law school is not the same for everyone. Many factors are in play, including a law school’s curriculum, the demands of family and outside activities, the moment when one secures permanent employment, and so on.
Also debatable is the point at which law school supposedly becomes more of a vacation than a dreaded obligation: second year or third year. Some students actually believe this adage: “First year they scare you to death, second year they work you to death, and the third year they bore you to death.”
What is certain is that the alleged change in culture after the first year has received considerable attention. Indeed, the seminal article “The Happy Charade: An Empirical Examination of the Third Year of Law School,” published in 2001 in the Journal of Legal Education, continues to generate attention in the legal community. Several prominent legal Web logs (or blawgs) have recently posted entries regarding the value of the third year, and whether it is even necessary.
So, are the last two years of law school at all useful? Judging by the comments from law students and law professors in the Washington area, the topic is hot. In fact, the George Washington University Law School recently decided to adopt a 13-week academic schedule — shortened from the usual 14 weeks — in part, it seems, to accommodate the additional obligations facing second- and third-year law students. Is GW onto something or needlessly experimenting?
Let’s start with my own experiences as a recent graduate of GW Law. The first year was very much like what I expected: Professors relied on the Socratic method; attendance was high (in fact, an absent student could be easily identified because there were usually only a few empty seats during each class); competition was palpable, though not always explicit; and there was a dearth of “down time.”
At times I was proud to be a student of the law, and at other times the late Adm. James Stockdale’s famous line repeated in my head while a professor discussed an obscure doctrine or an outrageous fact pattern: “Who am I, and what am I doing here?” Confusion and stress reared their unhelpful and unproductive heads, but, undeterred, I forged ahead.
The contrast between first year and second year couldn’t have been greater. Second year was much more of a positive experience for several reasons. First, I generally selected classes that I was substantively interested in. Second, I was able to choose courses taught by professors who used styles and exam formats that I preferred, such as lectures and research papers. While lectures aren’t as interactive as seminars or Socratic-intensive classes, I found it more beneficial to absorb a professor’s words than a student’s random, and potentially inaccurate, musings. In addition, I felt comfortable having my final grade hinge on a research paper, as opposed to an in-class exam, because I could more fully develop and present my legal arguments in a paper.
Third, despite the additional time that interviewing and job searching demanded, I still enjoyed considerable time to myself and did other activities that I was unable to do just a year before. This is perhaps due to the fact that I was able to prepare for class with greater ease. For instance, I knew how to spot the essential elements of a case and the salient arguments. Also, it seemed that the reading materials were just more stimulating.
Fourth, the atmosphere in the classroom was considerably more collegial and cooperative. Admittedly, some of my upper-class courses were small and not graded on a curve. And there were still those students who would give you their right kidney before giving you their notes. But these students were now the exception, rather than the rule.
Consequently, my final two years of law school were much more enjoyable than my first year. But does that mean that the second or third years are unnecessary? These years were easier, but that’s a normal progression. It wasn’t that the expectations of law professors decreased or that the courses were not challenging. In addition, all law students — and even legal practitioners — stand to benefit from additional academic instruction. At the same time, though, the final two years of law school could be improved.
Other law students agree. Jherna Shahani, a graduate of American University and a current law student, describes the first year as “impossible.” Jennifer Leong, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, told MSNBC that her third year involved “a lot of beer and softball.” Rajashri Gupta, a graduate of the George Washington University and a current law student at Washington University Law School, sees logic in the suggestion that first year is “1Hell.” To Gupta, the first year is considerably more challenging because the material is “all so new” and thus first-year students devote “much more personal effort towards learning the material.”
As to the improvements themselves, professor Mark Tushnet of Georgetown University Law Center told MSNBC that “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.” Professor Catherine Ross of GW Law adds, “I personally would like to see at least two upper-level writing projects as a requirement — taught by full-time faculty.”
These are both good ideas. The final year of law school could include an intensive writing requirement, such as the equivalent of a dissertation. A mandatory research paper would sharpen students’ writing skills and might lead them to further interest in legal scholarship as they begin their professional lives. Moreover, while some third-year law students may suffer from acute senioritis because they have landed a permanent job and thus their final grades don’t matter in the real world, being compelled to produce a legal research paper of publishable quality is something to look forward to — a meaningful hurdle toward obtaining a J.D.
GW Law recently instituted changes to its academic schedule in light of the different circumstances facing law students during their first, second, and third years. This recently adopted 13-week schedule includes a midsemester break in the fall for 1Ls and a week off at the beginning of the fall semester for 2Ls and 3Ls. This revised schedule comes after the American Bar Association’s accreditation guidelines were amended to permit 13-week academic schedules.
The new schedule seems mainly designed to accommodate second- and third-year students interviewing for jobs. Carole Montgomery of GW Law’s Career Development Office told GW Magazine: “The 13-week schedule exponentially increased relaxation and preparedness for the students who interviewed. It’s a tough week for them.”
Not everyone at GW has been happy with the new schedule. GW Law’s interim dean, Roger Trangsrud, admitted to GW Magazine, “The 13-week schedule has been well received by many faculty members and students, but many others remain skeptical of its merit.” Professor Arthur Wilmarth Jr. told the magazine, “In my view, supporters of the 13-week schedule failed to present a truly compelling rationale for their view that a 13-week schedule would be pedagogically superior (or even equivalent) to the 14-week schedule we successfully followed for many years.”
It’s probably too soon to tell if this change will help students in their law school careers.
Until then, bring on the beer and softball.
Dawinder S. Sidhu is an attorney with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He is also co-directing a research project at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project on the human consequences of the post-9/11 backlash against Sikhs and other minority communities.