Evaluating the third year of law school

Oct. 28, 2014, 7:28 p.m.

Recently, law schools around the country have entered a debate about the need for the third year of curriculum.

With the steep drop in law school applications in the past few years, law schools — including the Stanford Law School — are evaluating the value of a third year, especially in terms of appealing to prospective law students.

At a New York symposium of reforming law school requirements last year, Samuel Estreicher, professor of law at the New York University School of Law, said that the third year of law school should be made optional to reduce the cost of legal education and also allow students to gain more clinical experience in the real world.

At the same symposium, President Barack Obama stood in favor of outright reducing law school curriculum down to two years.


The Stanford curriculum

Stanford Law School encourages its students to not simply take law courses throughout their three years but rather to enroll in interdisciplinary courses offered across the University and participate in clinics to gain real world experience during their third year.

According to Susie Choi ’12 J.D. ’15, the first year of law school contains almost all the required coursework. However, she pointed out some differences between Stanford and other institutions.

“Stanford is a little different because we’re on quarters, so spring quarter is almost all electives; [however] for most other law schools, students in their first year take a series of courses that introduce them to the various types of law [and] only in their second year can they begin taking elective courses to specialize,” she said.

Choi explained that students usually take one of two approaches to the second and third years of law school – either taking classes that focus on their interests or taking a broad range of courses to broaden their scope of knowledge before specializing.

Whichever path they choose, students tend to gain a lot more freedom in their second and third years and can decide how they want to structure the remainder of their time in law school.

In particular, during their second and third years, many law school students also have the opportunity to participate in clinics, which take up a full quarter. During clinics, students work on real cases and do not take any classes.

“That’s why people say the third year is unnecessary,” Choi said. “You could take all your electives in the second year and then just be done.”


Reason for the third year

For Choi, however, the third year of law school has been very important to her intellectual and professional development. Even though she has not participated in clinics, she has been able to gain real world experience through many of her electives.

“Just having the opportunity to stick around and take more classes and continue learning and exploring is really nice,” she said.

Her peers, including Sean McElroy J.D. ’16, provided similar insights on the value of the third year of law school.

“It should be three, but the third year should be officially incorporated with some sort of apprenticeship,” McElroy said.

For Michael S. Wald, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, emeritus, the relatively new additions to Stanford’s law school experience including interdisciplinary courses and clinics make the third year worth it.

“At one point, when I started teaching at Stanford in ’67, there were three years of law school that were essentially similar in what they taught,” Wald said.

Although students have the option to choose specific fields of study or course work after their first year, they still take advantage of the variety of different classes in the law school.

According to Wald, while three years were unnecessary under the old system, that is not the case anymore.

“What’s going on in law schools has changed a lot. There are a number of different skills that are taught in law school,” Wald said.


Contact Riya Mehta  at riyam ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

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