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August 23, 2013 4:22 PM Reducing Time Wasted in Law Schools

By Ed Kilgore

I don’t know it is going to make headlines, but the president came up with a suggestion during his “college affordability” bus tour that I and many other law school graduates would heartily endorse (per BuzzFeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro):

As part of his bus tour focused on tough talk for school administrators and pushing the education establishment to help make schooling affordable, the president said it’s time for law schools to drop a year of classroom instruction.
“This is probably controversial to say, but, what the heck, I’m in my second term, so I can say it,” Obama said. “Law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.”
Obama said the third year of law school could be replaced with a paid job like an apprenticeship, which would create a dramatic reduction in costs for students. “The third year, they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren’t getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student,” he said.

It’s been a long time since I was in law school, and I gather schools have gotten better at offering practical experience both in-class and in out-of-class placements. But it’s long been a byword among young lawyers that an extraordinarily high percentage of instruction has been irrelevant to the actual practice of law, unless you take very seriously such chestnuts as the critical importance of learning to “think like a lawyer.” For one thing, an awful lot of law students, in my experience, have been “thinking like a lawyer” since about the third grade, which made them very unpopular children. More importantly, the cult of legal education seems to depend on the perpetuation of what amounts to an intellectual hazing system, where the student’s tolerance for tedious content, arbitrary testing, and self-imposed pressure is presumably preparation for the agonies of being on the low end of the professional totem pole for years.

The major downside to the president’s idea is that it might make law school more attractive to people who today just can’t stand the prospect of spending three whole years in an environment that feels a lot like a return to high school. The profession is overstuffed as it is. But making the experience as pointless and painful as possible is hardly the right way to police access.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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