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Law Schools Encouraged to Make Third Year More Effective

published February 13, 2006

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<<The Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research has released a report on its second-annual Law School Survey of Student Engagement; in it, researchers offer hope and advice to law schools struggling to give third-year students a productive finale to their educational experiences.

In the report, the researchers refer to thelaw student's aphorism, "The first year, they scare you to death; the second year, they work you to death; and the third year, they bore you to death."

According to George Kuh, chancellor's professor of higher education at Indiana University Bloomington, "The implication is that [first-year] students will be intimidated by a demanding workload and a steady barrage of Socratic teaching… The second year is said to be even more demanding… But by the third year, students seem to have learned how to 'do' law school."

However, Kuh notes in the survey report, "As we shall see, there is much more depth and complexity to the student experience than these adages suggest."

Between 2004 and 2005, more than 34,000 students at 73 law schools completed the survey on time management, academic experiences, and the overall benefits they perceive in a legal education.

Some of the data gathered from students is encouraging. Promising findings of the survey include the high numbers of students who said that their schools placed strong emphasis on scholarship and academic work, applying legal theories to the practice of law, and using information from a variety of sources when working on papers and projects.

However, other data proved disappointing. In addition to incurring large amounts of student debt and having little help in handling non-school issues, law students reported getting too little of the kind of attention that would benefit them most.

For example, although high levels of overall satisfaction were reported by students who received prompt feedback from professors, one in six students said they had never received timely oral or written feedback from a faculty member.

Similarly, students who received adequate academic and career counseling were more satisfied with their law school experience as a whole. However, the number of students using their school's career services decreased between 2004 and 2005; and 36 percent of students who sought counseling were not satisfied with the attention they had received.

One of the report's more interesting conclusions was that the "third-year slump" is supported by quantitative data.

When compared to first- and second-year students, third-years studied fewer hours, came to class prepared less often, used fewer sources in research, prepared fewer drafts for papers, and did less pro bono or clinical work. They also reported not working as hard as first- and second-year students to meet a professor's expectations.

Many have suggested that third-year students have simply become more familiar with the rules of the law-school game; hence, they do not need to be as thorough as other students to succeed in class and on exams.

As commenter and recent law school graduate "David" wrote, "Even beginning in the spring semester of the second year, students become well-versed in how to 'prepare' for a typical law school final.

"In the end, they realize what many 1Ls do not discover until it is too late: Because of the way most law school courses are taught, if all you care about is getting a good grade, you rarely need to go to class."

"[The survey] results tend to confirm the criticism that the third year of law school is not used effectively to build on students' existing skills and provide a sophisticated transition to the practice of law," said UCLA School of Law professor emerita Alison Grey Anderson in the press release for the survey results.

"In a well-structured professional education, third-year law students should feel they have learned more about solving complex real world problems, developing ethics, and developing clearer career goals than first-year students."

Many others have noted the repetitive nature of the final year of law school, and a few would even venture to offer suggestions on how to better structure that time to offer soon-to-be J.D.'s a more profitable experience.

The Practice—a blog started in October 2005 by solo attorneys Barry Kaufman, Jonathan Stein, and Shane Jimison—is devoted to instructing recent law school graduates on the practical aspects of practicing the law, most of which are not taught in law school, according to the authors.

The trio notes that "very little information in an interactive format" exists for helping 3Ls make the transition from law schools into law firms; much of their work centers on finding a better, more practical way to prepare law students for practice.

"The lack of real world experience is an issue," writes Stein.

"You graduate [from law school], and this might be your first real job. I remember my first real job. Man, did I screw up a few times. Not just the business we were in, but in dealing with co-workers, supervisors, etc…. You have a lot to learn as a new associate, including how to handle a job."

Stein theorized that having law-related work experience integrated as part of the J.D.—even in the form of clinics or jobs between undergraduate study and law school—would be a boon to all concerned parties.

"In terms of getting more practical experience, I think that is a valid concern. I was fortunate to go to a school, Pacific-McGeorge School of Law, that had a very active clinic. It gave students an opportunity to get real world experience.

"As for making the third year more valuable, I think encouragement of more clinics is a good idea. It increases the availability of legal services to low-income clients, while also giving practical experience to law students.

"Your clients also would benefit. If you have been in the 'real world,' you have some idea about their needs, their desires, their expectations. With this, you are in a better position to help them resolve their disputes and issues."

The researchers who designed the survey hope the results will be used by law schools "to improve the quality of the law school experience." By focusing on the needs and reactions of students, many hope that law schools will reexamine such factors as allocation of resources, accreditation, curriculum, and the universities' more general goals for student education.

"Engagement in learning is important because the more time and energy students devote to desired activities, the more likely they are to gain the skills and competencies essential for the practice of law," said Kuh in a press release that accompanied the report.

"Law schools that intentionally craft policies and practices so that students expend more effort on productive activities arguably are preparing their students well for what they will encounter after the J.D…. Law schools can do more to help students succeed by clearly marking paths that students should take to get involved in activities that matter to them and their learning."

"It is striking how little quantitative evidence has been available until recently about what students actually do in law school and how they assess their education," wrote Anderson in the report's foreword.

Noting other recent studies by the American Bar Association, the American Bar Foundation, and the Association of American Law Schools, she continued, "The resulting scholarship documents effective pedagogy and illuminates student learning, bringing serious social science to bear on the day-to-day life of the classroom."

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published February 13, 2006

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