Law students began complaining about the third year of law studies during the last great, sweeping reform of legal education: Christopher Columbus Langdell’s reform, in the 1880s. They have not stopped since. And with good reason.
Langdell sought to separate legal education from the practicing bar, and he succeeded brilliantly. At the time, both legal and medical education underwent reform. But the two were reformed in fundamentally different ways: Medical education decided that its mission would be to create doctors; legal education decided that its mission would be to create law professors. As law schools pulled away from the legal profession, medical education began its move toward practice education, clinical work, and residencies for fledgling doctors. Legal education is still recovering from this choice.
There was resistance to Langdell’s professional separation strategy. In an 1883 letter from Harvard Law Dean Ephraim Gurney to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, Gurney lamented that Langdell’s ideal was to “[b]reed professors of Law, not practitioners. . . . If you[r] LLB at the end of his three years did not feel as helpless on entering an office on the practical side as he is admirably trained on the theoretical, I think he would begrudge his third year less.”
Third-year students continue to “begrudge [the] third year,” and rightly so. The gap between what legal education teaches and what its graduates do is now beginning to get smaller, but not nearly small enough.