New York is tinkering with the idea of allowing the third years of law school to be optional. Proponents argue that the 3L year is superfluous and serves only to pad the pockets of law schools. The idea of giving law student the ability to get through school is two years is admittedly driven by the economic reality that there are too many young lawyers and not enough jobs. As the average private school law student faces $125,000 in debt, the idea of trimming that figure by a third is appealing in theory but what are the real world implications?
Advocates of the two-year model rely on notion that not only will be student be avoiding debt in the third year of law school but will be earning a salary which will result in the first two years of school being paid off sooner. But that may not be the case. Hurrying students into a market with no jobs doesn't solve the problem. It just means that the jobless young lawyers will only be staring down a $90,000 debt as they move into their parent's basement and compete for the limited number of jobs against other law graduates who likely have three years of schooling.
Could the option 3L model be of benefit to some? The answer is unquestionably yes.
However, maybe a more radical approach needs to be considered — a return to the practice of "reading the law," i.e., the apprenticeship path to becoming a lawyer. It's still available in some for or another in California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. The benefits of apprenticeship are clear for the would-be lawyer: a salary instead of debt, a chance to learn the practical side of practice upfront, and a quick answer to the nagging question "Do I really want to be a lawyer?" But there are also a benefits to the firms: the chance to have bright young minds at low level, low pay positions in the firm as they apprentice, a chance to personally mentor and train the type of lawyer the firm is looking for, and the chance to have a long-term evaluation of an individual before offering them a position as an associate.
A strong case can be made for reading the law, but will it make a prominent return to the American legal landscape? The odds are not good as long as those profiting from the law school system have their hands on the reins.