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Final year critical to sharpen skills

President Barack Obama’s recent call for law schools to become two-year programs reveals a naiveté that should trouble members of the legal-education community and the public who use legal services. The president, and others like him who attended elite law schools, might possess sufficient life experiences and/or legal acumen that would exempt them from benefiting from a third year of law school. Students today, however, need more than four semesters of legal education to be of any benefit to law firms and future clients.

Nearly every law school begins with a first-year curriculum that contains required building-block courses such as contracts, property, legal writing and criminal law. These subjects are foundational, and they provide students with a new vocabulary and a set of legal reasoning skills, enabling them to master more complex subjects such as bankruptcy, antitrust or environmental law in the second and third years of law school. In addition, the first-year curriculum helps students develop the analytical ability to “think like a lawyer.”

In a traditional three-year program, the second and third years allow students to use the final four semesters to enroll in electives that will build their knowledge in their preferred area(s) of concentration. That is very important. At my institution, Indiana Tech Law School, and a few others, the second and third years also provide invaluable opportunities for students to apply their newly obtained substantive knowledge by engaging in clinics, externships and full-time “semester-in-practice” practicums. Without three years of supervised classroom and practical training, students would not have sufficient time to enroll in enough courses in a particular area of law to become proficient in that area as well as courses that will help them prepare for the bar exam and general lawyering.

If Obama and others cannot think of a reason why we should have a third year of law school, they do not understand the changing nature of law practice and the new demands placed on legal educators to implement a more “practice ready” law graduate. Three years of law school, when intensive practical training is included in the curriculum, is the only way to prepare law students for success in their legal careers and in life.

Peter Alexander is dean at Indiana Tech Law School.