President Obama's recent suggestion that law schools consider eliminating the third year of study puts welcome national attention on crises in the legal profession and legal education which have serious implications for all our communities. While jobs for lawyers and applications for law schools have dropped precipitously, injustice and the average American's need for quality, affordable legal representation have not. The question for law schools is less about how quickly we can send students to a struggling profession than it is how well we prepare them to be successful, ethical lawyers promoting justice and worthy of the trust that clients place in them.
To be worthy of accepting tuition dollars from students and their parents, all law schools must more effectively prepare the next generation of lawyers whose careers will take them into the second half of the 21st century. Law schools must not only adapt to the changes in the profession brought about by the economy and technology, we must get ahead of them. At the University of San Francisco School of Law, we are evaluating and strengthening our courses to best prepare students to pass the bar examination and be practice-ready problem solvers upon graduation. Our faculty are training today's law students to meet the legal needs of families and businesses in an array of areas, from tax to intellectual property to immigration, something that could be lost without a third year of study. As a school that has been majority women since 1989 and whose first year class this fall has a majority of students of color, we, today, look like the nation will look in the next 30 years. We are delivering legal education that effectively assists a diverse student population to address the concerns that matter most to them and to their communities, and that enables them to thrive. The third year is a critical component of that goal.
Legal systems based on precedent and pedagogy steeped in last century models are not ready-made laboratories for innovation. In the same way that we find fewer traditional law firms than we did ten years ago, only the law schools that adapt to change and embrace it will survive the enrollment and professional employment upheavals experienced today. While some law schools experiment with a two-year JD curriculum and turn the third year over to the profession, a more sound approach is to reconfigure the third year. The third year, long described as the year law students are "bored to death" after two years of being "scared to death" and "worked to death," must be strategically shaped to open new vistas for students in international studies, externships, clinical education, pro bono opportunities, and advanced interdisciplinary studies.
Struggling law firms are not well situated to become the apprentice shops envisioned in President Obama's Binghamton University statement. Law firms have priorities to serve client needs. In these difficult economic times, they are engaging in less—not more—mentoring. Law schools can and must offer students practical training and service opportunities that develop their skills in oral advocacy, research and writing, client counseling, and law firm management. For example, USF's Keta Taylor Colby Death Penalty Project gives students experience working with capital defense attorneys in Southern states to interview defendants and witnesses, research and evaluate claims and prepare habeas, clemency, and appellate petitions. Our new Entrepreneurial Ventures Clinical Project gets students working with start-up companies both to increase students' understanding of practical legal, business, and tax concerns and to collaborate with clients to protect their trademarks, copyrights, and other intellectual property.
The responsibility of preparing the lawyers that will serve the legal needs of an increasingly diverse nation over the next half century is better shared with public sector partners at the federal, state, and local levels. Already, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office certifies law students at USF and eight other schools to practice trademark law before the USPTO under the guidance of a faculty member; Coast Guard mariner license revocation litigants are represented by our law students; and, otherwise unrepresented federal employees are provided legal representation from our students through an agreement with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development law school partnership program supports the training of law students in investigations and testing by private, non-profit fair housing organizations. President Obama's goal to imbue law students with the skills critical to serving clients and the public interest can be furthered by enabling them to help the Department of Veteran Affairs evaluate the disability and benefits claims of our returning soldiers and their families; to help legalized immigrants prepare tax returns and document residency; and to help small businesses navigate affordable health and other new regulations. At the state and local level, overworked public defenders and district attorneys can use the help of law students as they fulfill their constitutional roles for fair adjudications and trials and protect our communities.
If the job of law schools were simply to recreate lawyers in their own image, it could be done easily in two years. Law schools must earn the trust and faith that the investment of the third year of tuition exposes students not only to daily law practice but to the vast legal needs unmet by our system today. These needs might be consumer protection when buying a first car or home, eviction representation to avoid homelessness, or tax advice on how to ensure that wealth can be handed down safely to succeeding generations. Or they might involve community problem-solving bringing to light long-standing but long-avoided inequities involving tax allocation, educational inequities, or environmental degradation.
The state of legal education cannot be improved by law school deans, faculty, staff, and students alone. Law schools should be the place where those in the profession who have benefited from a sound legal education, advocates for the under-represented in our society, the philanthropic community, public officials, and the people themselves can come together to define their needs and aspirations for legal education and skills training true to our values as a society of laws and justice.
This piece was originally published in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journals and posted on HuffingtonPost.