Let’s see, how to phrase this?
Version One [Polite academese]: The pedagogic value of the third year of law school has long been questioned by law students.
Version Two [Qualitative sociology in the Internet age]: 3LOL
Seriously, legal academics and administrators could find worse uses for ten minutes of their time than reading through the linked TLS thread, which provides a mordant reminder that many 3Ls do literally none of the assigned reading, show up for class only if compelled to do so, and pay no attention to what’s going on even when they’re physically there. A few highlights:
I’ve gone to 3 classes in two weeks. That’s three hours in two weeks. I’m exhausted.
I was assigned 8 pages to read for tomorrow…can’t even get through 4. How the hell did I read hundreds in 1L?!
Tomorrow is the third week of class. I’ve been to two days of school. And I have zero books.
I’m at 3LOL in a town where some bars stay open until 5am daily. I should leave a credit card open at each of them, just for the convenience of having a permanently open tab at all of them.
I think I’m gonna take random classes in the rest of the university. I signed up for calculus this semester. The professor emailed said he thought I might be too busy with law school. I told him I won’t be as busy as he might think.
What could explain this horribly “unprofessional” behavior, which, as every candid observer knows, is epidemic among third-year law students? (And far from unknown among the more cynical and strategic 2Ls).
The answer is straightforward: so many 3Ls behave this way because they’ve concluded the third year of law school is, for them, a waste of very large amounts of both time and money. This is hardly an irrational conclusion, given the following:
(1) They’ve come to realize that both class attendance and diligent reading bear only a very loose relationship to the grades they get. Especially in traditional doctrine-oriented classes featuring an issue-spotting final exam, a couple of weeks or indeed even a couple of days of cramming with one of the many excellent outlines for the professor’s class that are floating around work just as well or better in regard to getting a good grade as going to class and doing the readings.
(2) By 3L, grades don’t matter anyway. A student’s class standing is pretty much determined, and worse yet students have come to realize that grades only matter for the kinds of jobs that can be gotten through OCI, which is another way of saying that the only grades that really count are those you got as a 1L.
(3) 3Ls who have done any amount of substantive legal work realize that going to law school is a very inefficient way to go about learning how to be a lawyer.
(4) Quite apart from their lack of vocational utility, a lot of law school classes have little or no inherent intellectual value. In addition, even when classes do have such value, many 3Ls have, after 20 years of formal schooling, no interest in pursuing further education for its own sake — especially at the price they’re being required to pay for something they don’t want anyway.
Which brings us to the matter of the ABA’s attendance policy. It came as quite a surprise to me when, at some point early on in my legal academic career, I learned that the ABA Rules require students to go to class (see 304-d). As a law student I had never heard of such a thing, and indeed the last time I had been formally required to show up for class, as far as I was aware, was in high school. But it turns out that the ABA accreditation standards require “regular and punctual” attendance on the part of students, and in theory any law school that fails to enforce this policy puts its accreditation in danger.
This rule is, at least formally (an important qualifier), taken quite seriously by law schools, as illustrated by the University of Pittsburgh Law School’s policy:
The American Bar Association Standards for Approval of Law Schools and the policy of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law require regular and punctual class attendance in order for a student to satisfy residence and credit hour requirements. Accordingly, students are expected and required to attend all regularly scheduled Law School classes in which they are enrolled. Attendance includes preparation. Any student who fails to attend at least eighty percent of regularly scheduled classes for any course (i.e., fails to comply with “the 80% rule”) will be certified out and will receive a “U” (“unsatisfactory”) for the course. The 80% rule is applied based on the number of class meetings and not the number of credit hours for a course. For example:
Course Meetings (per week) Allowed Absences (per term)
Individual faculty members may impose a greater class attendance requirement for a particular course.
Attendance records will be based on sign-in sheets that will be circulated during each class, although a faculty member may adopt a different procedure for monitoring attendance in a seminar or clinical course or if the faculty member chooses to impose a greater class attendance requirement than the 80% rule. It is the responsibility of each student to sign his or her name at the appropriate place on the attendance sheet prior to the end of each class, and each student who fails to do so will be considered absent. The standards of academic integrity apply to this policy.
Each student is responsible for maintaining his or her own records of attendance. As a courtesy, the School’s records for each student will be available through PeopleSoft in the my.pitt.edu portal. (Each student will have access only to his or her own records and will be able to view the attendance record for each class in which the student is registered. To learn how to track your attendance through PeopleSoft, please review the PDF or video tutorial that is available by clicking the “Learn More” link under the Student Center Login menu item. The instructions are titled “Viewing Your Law Class Attendance Online.”)
Students will receive no other notice or warning regarding their attendance unless a student violates the 80% rule (i.e., exceeds the maximum allowable number of absences) in a particular class. In that event, the student will be certified out of that class and the Deans’ Office will send a letter to the student’s Law School mailbox notifying the student that he or she has been certified out of the class. The notice will be deemed to have been received by the student upon delivery to the student’s mailbox.
Of course many schools don’t go this far. Here’s Northwestern’s policy:
Class attendance is required in all courses, as is mandated by our accrediting authorities. No student should enroll in any course without the intention and capability of satisfying this requirement. Failure to attend a class regularly may cause reduction in the grade, loss of credit for the course, additional remedial work, denial of residence credit or other appropriate sanctions in the discretion of the instructor or the Dean.
This “there’s a rule but we’re not going to actually require anyone to do anything to enforce it” seems to remain the general practice at higher-ranked schools. I’d be curious to learn if there are any faculty members at elite schools that employ sign-in sheets or the like, and I would expect that the percentage of a school’s faculty who track attendance is inversely related to the school’s hierarchical status. (Until a couple of years ago CU faculty had the privilege of expressly waiving the “80% rule,” which is apparently the common law understanding of what the ABA means by regular attendance, but the powers that be decided granting faculty this privilege was in conflict with the Plain Meaning of the ABA Text).
Anyway, the class attendance requirement casts an interesting light on the sociological structure of legal education, which in this and other ways tends towards a combination of petty authoritarianism and emotional regression, i.e. high school all over again. It’s not exactly a shock that, by their third year, so many law students are in open revolt against that structure.
(I’m cross-posting this from ITLSS in the hope of getting some discussion going regarding when mandatory attendance policies are and aren’t warranted in the context of higher education generally. Are there graduate programs that enforce class attendance? What about medical school? Obviously big variations are no doubt warranted at the undergraduate level, given the extremely broad range of institutions involved. But is it a good idea to require upper level undergrads at research universities to show up for class, as opposed to say first-year CC students who are learning “life skills?” This isn’t a rhetorical question btw).