Wasted Years

At VC, Juan Non-Volokh links to this MSNBC article debating the value of the final year of law school:

At many top law schools, the third year is famously relaxed, a halcyon interlude between rigorous introductory courses and the long hours that await graduates at law firm jobs. There is research and volunteer work, but also a lot of bar-hopping and little studying: 15 hours per week, according to one survey at 11 law schools, compared to 33 hours for first-year students.

But if it’s an extended vacation, it’s pricey: $30,000 or more at top private schools. And at many law schools, grads can’t count on the six-figure salaries awaiting many at the most prestigious programs, so an extra year of debt is a big burden.

Some educators want to see the third year beefed up, arguing the law is more complex than ever and future lawyers need more preparation, both for the bar and exam and for their careers. But others want it dropped.

Critics say there’s so much law that students will learn most of it on the job, anyway. They see the third year as a revenue racket, a full-employment scheme for faculty that comes at the expense of non-elite school students and discourages them from taking public service jobs.


But there are also signs the third year is as entrenched as ever. The ABA’s requirements are still stringent. The legal profession wants to keep quality — and in some critics’ eyes, salaries — high, so it doesn’t want to make it too easy to become an attorney. Also, the legal recruiting process is built around a three-year schedule; summers are when law students earn money and take the internships that lead to jobs, so many will be reluctant to give them up.

Besides, many third-year law students do work hard. Increasingly, they are getting hands-on training in legal clinics. In the classroom, some educators say third year is when students learn the law they most need to know. University of Chicago Law Dean Saul Levmore says students there are more likely to suggest adding a fourth year than dropping the third.

I have no idea about law school, but I can echo the sentiment as far as medical school is concerned. 4th year med students are just as notorious for "taking it easy" as the law students coming down the same stretch. I spent the year doing about 2-3 months of real work, some more on vacation, and a good chunk taking board exams and traveling for interviews. The last two are the only things that really matter, and I could have done those while taking a year off and not racking up another 25K in debt. (Plus, the board exams are over 2K, and travel expenses can range anywhere from 1K to 10K, depending on many variables)

The problem, as I see it, with both is that now that medicine and law are super-specialized, it makes the final years a total waste. Before the year begins, most have their specialties picked out. And during the year, the roatations/classes involve more specialized topics. So, the super-specialized topics you are learning about are either A) not related to your chosen field, and, thus, useless (it certainly has value to learn about things outside your field, but it's likely not worth it at the price you must pay), or B) related to your chosen field, and, thus, superfluous since you're about ready to learn on the job anyway (it certainly has value to have prior experience, but, again, not at the price you must pay).

I certainly enjoyed my fourth year, but it had nothing to do with what I actually did in school. However, don't hold your breath waiting for the guys at the AMA and ABA to push for change.

Share this

I don't know about law

I don't know about law school, but I strongly disagree with this view of the 4th year of medical school. If you think 4th year is wasted, it's because you wasted it, but not all of us do. Fourth year, for me, was my last chance to see parts of medicine that were outside of my chosen field and yet useful to have been exposed to nonetheless, or to study them in greater depth than I would in my residency.

For example, 4 weeks of cardiology on the consult service taught me more cardiology than I would learn until late in my anesthesiology training (very nice knowing it during the 2 years before doing heart cases).

I agree that that is the

I agree that that is the state of things, but I think the law profession would be a great deal better if it were similar to med school.

And I'm not entirely sure how, but I think the difference is somehow tied to law being largely a government production.

Perhaps this is just my

Perhaps this is just my hopeless bias (or my eternally naive optimism), but it strikes me that there are few things better than having a year simply to explore things that interest you with few other outside pressures.

Yeah, it's certainly possible to blow off one's last year of college (or of law or medical school, I suppose; I've not been to either). It's also possible to waste lots of time in graduates school (to make n=something large, to use Michael's terminology). But doing so is hardly a requirement.

Medical school I know is pretty different, but law school and college are full of very interesting elective courses. I took several law school electives while I was in grad school (they were often co-taught by philosophers and law profs). It's true that one could blow them off and still get good grades. At UVA, this was more true for the law students, who were all graded by the law professor and who got an A regardless of the crap they turned in. The philosophy students all got graded much more harshly. But it all worked out since philosophers get paid so much better. Oh, wait.

Anyway, not all the law students turned in crap. Several of them did really good work and learned a lot. That option was available to everyone. I suppose that I'm just disappointed to think that law students think of law school as job training. It's a place to learn about law, not lawyer training. Jobs prepare you for jobs. Universities prepare you to think. I would think that if you're just in law school so that you can be a lawyer but have no interest in learning about the law itself, then you really ought to just bail on law school, move to Virginia, apprentice for the bar and save on the loans.

None of this seems relevant to medical school, where the last two years aren't really spent in school at all. That does strike me as a scam. Being a physician seems the sort of thing that one can learn entirely on the job. Those who want to do medical research could get a Ph.D.

My fourth year of medical

My fourth year of medical school was a total waste of time. I figured that if I was paying for it, I might as well enjoy it. It was basically a year long vacation.

Come to think of it, much of the first 3 years were also a waste of time. It was basically a quest to do enough ass-kissing to get good grades and good letters of recommendation.

And my last year of college was also largely a waste. At least the hokies went to the Orange Bowl.

And most of my 12 years of elemenatary/middle/high school were also a waste.

You can keep it where it is

You can keep it where it is and just have a year between graduation and your career.

I imagine many students would be asked to stay on after their second-year internships.

As far as both law school

As far as both law school and med school are concerned, I'm not saying you have to move up the job process. You can keep it where it is and just have a year between graduation and your career. You could spend that year finding a job, doing research (making money), and/or working outside of either (ie. waiting tables). Make money instead of get deeper in debt.

The problem is that law

The problem is that law students basically have their post-graduation jobs lined up by the end of their 2L summer. If you eliminate the third year of law school, the whole hiring process will move up a year and the 2L year will be just as lazy as the 3L year is now.

I'm struck by the contrast

I'm struck by the contrast of law and medical school with graduate school. Roughly speaking, the first two years of taking classes are difficult, and the final three years of doing research and writing the dissertation are brutal. In between, you have n years where life is great: no classes, little research, very little pressure. Rather than an easy year at the end like in law or medicine, all the good years are sandwiched in between the hard stuff.

The problem, of course, is that 2 + n + 3 >= 5, with equality only in the improbable case of n = 0. So even the best-case scenario in grad school involves at least 5 hard years—with somewhat suspect job prospects upon graduation. The only saving grace is that, due to assistantships and tuition grants, you don't end up $100K in debt...

Ph.D., Physics, 2003
n = 2

No, he makes a fair point.

No, he makes a fair point. We could probably do without second and first as well.

Scott, don't kid yourself

Scott, don't kid yourself into thinking medicine is not a government production.

And, Brent, I think you hardly know to what extent I did or did not waste my own time. It's entirely possible, you would have to admit, that I got the most out of my experience and it was still a waste. You had a great cardiology rotation - well, bully for you. I hope it was worth $30,000-50,000.

I can only speak to this

I can only speak to this from outside of those particular fields. In my case I belong to what almost seems to be the last bastion of "professional" fields which has been able, so far, to still allow for the un-degreed and un-licensed individual. The field is simply that of Information Technology. I have no degree and the few classes I have taken (enough credits for an Associates Degree, but not in the "right" classes to actually get that degree) have largely been a waste of time. Not to say they were not interesting in their own ways, mind you, but I personally find my actual learning curve to be far better associated with the specific skills for my job, which rarely, if ever, are taught in a classroom today. Those skills are simply that of problem solving. A High School logic class was probably the most productive thing I've ever taken on that front (and I failed that, with 2 separate teaches, twice... just because so much of my grade depended on homework and I HATED homework, and for some reason test scores alone aren't accepted as proficiency in so many classes.)

Outside of the classroom the most useful tool for me has been, despite the stigma many seem to associate with this, computer games. Problem solving and critical thinking skills, I find, are constantly exercised by things like computer games, reading sites of interest to me (such as this one) and otherwise just expanding my knowledge as the situation or interest arises. I think human beings are exceptionally adept at learning in this way, and indeed it used to be highly lauded in this country (see the incredible esteem we place upon self-made men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison!), yet these days that learning style seems to be subsumed within the conformity of the classroom. Perhaps in this way Mr. Schuele's statement of "We could probably do without second and first as well." has a great deal of bearing.

Of course one could argue that my professional need to get into the guts of a computer, to understand the link between hardware and software and where a problem could be occurring within either of those things and determining proper courses of action to fix or prevent such problems, is nowhere near being akin to Law or Medicine. Yet I often wonder if this is really all that true. We all come across new situations we have never encountered before in our careers, yet we troubleshoot, research, adapt and overcome these hurdles on a daily basis. My greatest skill is not memorization (indeed, I'm rather poor at it) it is adaptability, flexibility and ability to do research to find answers and to educate myself as needed. Rarely have I found any kind of schooling to be all that helpful in this respect, but only for answering specific questions.

Outside of this it is only being able to generalize the specifics of what is taught in the classroom that I think really allows us, as individuals, to put the concepts of what is taught to use. As has been brought up here already, is the financial burden of the modern classroom really worth it for those of us who learn far better outside of that environment? Not for me and I can certainly sympathize with those in other fields who have rigorous requirements for licensing. (BTW, I have no certifications, either. I certainly take a hit in salary, although I still do quite well, for it but that is an acceptable trade-off for me and my employers have always greatly appreciated my skills despite not having the educational requirements some have begun to enforce onto my field.)

My observation is that a

My observation is that a great many of our education and training systems have two hidden agenda items. The first is to delay entry into the professions so that those in practice with full credentials can earn higher incomes. If Law, Medicine and other doctoral programs were more efficient, i.e. took less time at less expense, there would be more entries and salaries would be lower. This goes down the line to high school. Compulsory education to age 16 or 17 and the campaigns against dropping out are directed as much to limiting the competition from cheap labor as they are to benefit the young.
The second point of course is a jobs program for the faculties. And keeping the revenue stream up for the schools.
Check around to see what typical practices are in other countries. Many have shorter trajectories than we do, and it is hard to argue that their societies in general suffer by contrast where it counts, namely life expectancy, morbidity rates, crime, etc.
It seems whenever unemployment starts to rise, a first response is to build more inefficiency into the system.

Law school is a waste of

Law school is a waste of time, the third year especially. Lawyers are supposed to be professionals, not academics. Does a plumber become better at his craft by staying in trade school? No, he has some apprenticeship where he learns how to apply his knowledge. Without some real world experience, the plumber may never know how to properly unclog your crapper or what actually constitutes a crapper. The same can be said of a lawyer. The lawyer, like the plumber, needs real world experience. He gets no practical experience in law school. (In medical school you get a cadaver; what the hell do you get in law school?) That is why Richard Posner is a huge proponent of a legal apprenticeship instead of a third year of law school.

If the third year is to delay entry into the field, then a better solution would be to let fewer people into school and make the bar exam more difficult to pass?

Dave, I'm not sure that the


I'm not sure that the facts bear up your claims about unusually long periods of education in the U.S. They certainly don't seem to in primary and secondary school. The 12 years of compulsory education in the U.S. is not that far from the norm. A few countries require 13 years (Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium for example). Several others (including the UK and NZ) also require 12, and most other heavily industrialized nations require 10 or 11. Drop below 10 and there aren't all that many economies that I'd especially want to emulate (Switzerland with 9 is something of an exception).

See http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/edu_dur_of_com_edu

In terms of duration of secondary education, the U.S. (6.0 years) is actually right at the weighted mean of 6.05. Most of the other industrialized nations are considerably higher.

See http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/edu_dur_of_edu_sec_lev