Dean's Desk: Third year offers students opportunity to define, hone skills

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dean-buxbaun-hannahOur profession is in the midst of an important conversation about legal education – one that encompasses the costs of that education, the employment opportunities for entry-level lawyers, and the curriculum that law schools offer.

One recurring proposal, championed most recently by President Obama, is to reduce law school from three years to two (or at least to grant schools the flexibility to offer two-year programs if they so choose). In considering this particular solution, it’s important to take a close look at how students are currently spending their third year. What we notice at the Maurer School of Law is that there is no uniform answer to this question. Of course, it’s not a surprise that students use their third year of study in different ways, and to different ends. They come to our school from a variety of personal, educational and professional backgrounds, and with a variety of career objectives in mind. And during the course of their studies here – including in our first-year class on the legal profession – they learn more about their own particular strengths and values, and how they align with potential career paths. Therefore, the third-year experience differs from student to student.

For example, some third-year students work in a clinic. Like most schools, we run a number of clinics that combine client representation or field work with an intensive academic component. Our Conservation Law Clinic, for instance, gives students the opportunity to work with staff attorneys at the Conservation Law Center, collaborating on cases involving natural resource law and policy. Students in the clinic draft legal documents and work on their presentation skills before administrative law judges. At the same time, they hone their skills in time management, collaboration, and research and writing. Clinic work is hands-on and fast-moving, and students who participate report that their research and writing skills improve immensely during the course of the semester.

Other students participate in full-semester externships in the public sector. Last spring, we had students working in Washington, D.C., for organizations including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Public Defender Service, and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. These externships not only provide hands-on training, but also expose students to additional substantive law in complex and specialized fields. In addition, they help students build the professional networks that enhance their placement prospects.

For some students, the most productive use of the third year involves additional coursework rather than experiential learning. Our 3Ls often return from their summer work experience with a much clearer picture of the gaps they need to fill before moving into permanent employment. After working as summer associates in law firms, some students realize that they need to improve their writing skills. So they take courses such as advanced legal writing, which builds on the mandatory first-year writing program and exposes students to a wide range of document types, including client letters and contracts. Other offerings in this area include transaction drafting, litigation drafting, and strategies in critical reading and writing.

Other students, finding that their career paths are more clearly defined by the beginning of their 3L year, devote that year to additional classes in particular substantive fields — classes that aren’t just more of the same from their second year, but that give them the richer set of doctrinal, analytical and professional competencies that will enable them to succeed in their chosen field. For students pursuing a career in intellectual property, for instance, the third year might include highly specialized classes such as IP antitrust and patent trial practice. Some students deepen their concentration in a particular substantive area by taking advantage of classes offered at IU’s Kelley School of Business, or its School of Public and Environmental Affairs. (And, of course, some students choose to pursue a four-year course of study by obtaining joint degrees such as the JD-MBA or JD-MPA.)

The role of the third year of law school — and whether it’s necessary at all — will continue to be a topic of discussion for the foreseeable future. While that debate continues, our students are putting their third year to good use in ways tailored to their specific needs and objectives as they plan their careers.•


Hannah L. Buxbaum is Interim Dean and John E. Schiller Chair in Legal Ethics at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Opinions expressed are the author’s.


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  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.