It has been five years since President Barack Obama encouraged law schools to consider eliminating the 3L year. Yet despite his charge and calls for reform from practitioners and professors, not much has changed since then, or, in fact, since he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991.
This lack of change is in part because law school education works. The Socratic method teaches lawyers to think critically and on their feet. Traditional first- and second-year classes provide foundational knowledge and skills that all lawyers need.
But a lot about legal education is not working to prepare new lawyers for the realities of modern-day practice. A number of law schools spend too much time teaching to the bar exam, even though, thanks to technology, memorization is rarely useful in the practice of law today. Even where the focus is on training students to think like lawyers, three years of that is not necessary, particularly at a hefty price tag and at the expense of more practical training in the professional and networking skills young lawyers need to succeed.
Today’s young lawyers are expected to be facile managers. We are tasked early on with overseeing vendors and supervising teams conducting investigations, document reviews and due diligence projects. We deliver presentations, plan project timelines and “keep the trains moving on time.”
Today’s young lawyers need basic financial and technological literacy. Lawyers in every practice area are expected to understand their clients’ finances and craft legal strategies accordingly. Young lawyers are also expected to draft budgets for their clients and then stick with them. And we are expected to utilize cutting-edge technology to develop and maintain sophisticated organizational charts, spreadsheets and presentations. Beyond that, we are often expected to understand how our clients’ IT infrastructure works, and to craft arguments and structure deals based on that understanding.
Today’s young lawyers are also expected to be expert networkers. Unlike teamwork-oriented MBA programs, law schools have historically been competitive places. Yet we are expected from day one to build relationships with our colleagues and clients and to navigate office politics. And we are expected to start developing business early on—taking business prospects (or future business prospects) out for lunch or drinks, assuming leadership roles in bar associations, and establishing ourselves as experts in our fields through writing and presenting—all while carrying the heavy workload that has always been a rite of passage in our profession.
On top of all this, young lawyers are expected early on to take the lead on important documents and appearances. We are often asked to take and defend depositions, meet with clients, appear in court, manage closings or prepare first drafts of filings and contracts.
Despite the undisputed importance of these practical skills, they are rarely taught in law schools or even the law offices where many young lawyers start their careers. It is time for that to change, and every aspect of our profession has a part to play in that evolution.
Improving legal education must begin with law schools. Rather than call on law schools to eliminate the 3L year altogether, we urge them to do a better job of making that final year worthwhile.
Part of the solution should be an increased focus on clinics for 3Ls. Hands-on experience, with guidance from practitioners and professors, can help law students develop management and problem-solving skills, while giving students a chance to apply what they have learned during the prior two years. Collaborative clinics would also help prepare law students for the teamwork required in today’s workplaces.
Law schools should also strongly consider requiring, or at least encouraging, 3L coursework geared toward practical skills. Introductory classes on accounting, finance, management and project management would be a good start, even if most students were to take only one or two of them. Training on PowerPoint, Excel and other software tools, including law-specific programs other than research databases, should also be added to the standard curriculum. These courses could leverage professors from local business schools, teaching on their own or with members of the law school faculty.
In addition, law schools should move away from exam-focused grading for all courses. By the 3L year, students should be graded both on group work and exam performance. This would force law students to learn to navigate team dynamics.
Finally, law schools should do a better job of impressing upon students the importance of mentoring. Career services offices should coach students in identifying mentors and building meaningful relationships with them.
Some law schools are moving in the right direction. The University of California, Irvine Law School’s Third-Year Intensive program encourages 3Ls to take a practicum or capstone course, participate in an advanced clinic or externship, or author a substantial research paper or law journal note or article. Washington and Lee University School of Law has a third-year externship program, featuring two-week skills immersions for litigation and transactional work, as well as a requirement that students take one elective per semester in which they engage in an actual legal setting in a representational capacity. All schools (and the American Bar Association) should incentivize students to take advantage of practical offerings that are already available.
Law Students and Young Lawyers
Law students should be part of the solution, too. They should take advantage of clinics and practical courses offered at their schools, and should consider relevant classes in other disciplines offered by undergraduate and graduate programs at their universities. They should make the most of their summers during law school, opting for internships that offer hands-on experience. By the 3L year, many students know how they’ll start their legal careers and should select courses, clinics and extracurriculars accordingly.
Law students should think hard about how to maximize their first few years as lawyers. A new lawyer aspiring to learn as much as they can about civil litigation may opt for a trial-level clerkship rather than a more prestigious appellate clerkship, or may decide to initially work with a boutique offering lots of hands-on experience instead of taking a Big Law job, even if that means forgoing some income and involvement in more high-profile matters.
After graduation, young lawyers should sign up for CLEs and other classes that will develop skills that they need for their jobs—rather than simply fulfilling CLE requirements by finding a course at a convenient hour or location. Young lawyers should look for mentors who will help them identify areas of weakness and effective strategies for addressing them. In addition, young lawyers should volunteer early and often to take leadership roles in their matters. There is no substitute for learning on your feet.
Law firms, in-house and public law departments, and solo practitioners also have a role to play. Employers can provide practical training for newly hired lawyers, whether by offering an in-house training program or subsidizing coursework at a business school or bar association. In a promising step, several large firms have partnered with business schools to offer in-depth management training to junior and midlevel associates. Other firms have hired consultants to provide leadership training. Purposefully designed secondment and mentoring programs can also help facilitate the development of practical skills. Experienced lawyers should (and should be incentivized to) bring new lawyers along to deal closings, client meetings, depositions and court appearances, even when the cost needs to be written off. These investments are a win-win: They help the young lawyer develop, which in turn helps them contribute on the job.
Finally, it is time to recognize that professionals in other disciplines can add value to our practices, while freeing up senior lawyers to spend more time strategizing for clients and mentoring young lawyers. It may be that a professional with more relevant experience or training will do a better and more cost-effective job than a lawyer at running project teams, overseeing recruitment and retention, and managing the business development process.
Heather Souder Choi
Ji Hye You
Martina Tyreus Hufnal
Sakina Rasheed Foster
The views expressed here are personal to the authors and do not represent the opinions of their employers.