Lexington, VA • Thursday, August 20, 2009
When third year students return to Washington and Lee Law School this week, they will be met with a brand new curriculum, one unlike any other in the country.
Students in the School's innovative new program will be engaged in a year-long course of study marked by practice-based simulations, real-client experiences, and explorations into legal ethics and professionalism, all designed to prepare them for the transition from law students to legal practitioners.
Spurred on by the influential 2007 Carnegie Report on Educating Lawyers and similar studies critical of law schools for failing to prepare students for actual law practice, many law schools began to explore curricular reforms. But perhaps none has heeded the call for change as completely as W&L.
"Everyone in legal education is closely following the noble experiment in experiential learning for third year law students being introduced this year at Washington and Lee," says Judith Welch Wegner, Burton Craige Professor of Law at UNC and co-author, Educating Lawyers. "The innovative approach developed at W&L will provide students with important education in thinking, doing, and understanding professional roles. The school is to be commended for this exciting innovation."
The debate about the need for law school reform is largely over, notes W&L Law Dean Rodney A. Smolla. The question is what will that reform look like?
"What our program recognizes is that by engaging legal subject matter within the context and complexity of practice situations, students receive a much richer and complete learning experience, one that shows them the realities of legal practice and prepares them for those challenges," says Smolla. "I think the value of that was clear to our students."
W&L's new program will be required in 2012 but is optional for current second- and third-year students. Well over half of the rising 3L class elected to enter the inaugural year of the program this fall, doubling the expected enrollment in this first year of partial operation.
The core of the program features four experiential modules, at least one of which must include real-client exposure. The remaining modules are practice-based "practicum" courses that simulate a variety of legal environments and cover the array of legal subject matter, including Family Law, Corporate Law, International Human Rights, and Labor and Employment Law.
In addition, the program includes two-week practice skills immersions at the beginning of each semester, one focused on litigation practice, the other on transactional practice. Students also will take a year-long professionalism course where they will study and reflect on legal ethics, civility in practice, civic leadership, pro bono service, and law firm economics.
"It's not enough to simply provide more externship opportunities," says W&L Law professor James E. Moliterno. "Those are valuable of course, but just like in real practice, they don't offer the opportunity for enough guidance or feedback. The genius of W&L's program is that a full 80 percent of the curriculum is composed of simulations, guided explorations into legal subject matter and lawyering experiences that lead to a specific educational outcome."
Moliterno, one of the world's foremost experts in legal ethics and skills development, joined W&L this fall as Vincent Bradford Professor of Law after a 21-year career at William and Mary, where he directed the law school's award winning legal skills program.
Whether the experience provided in the new program pays off when it comes to the job search remains to be seen. But recent data suggest that prospective students are keenly interested in W&L's approach. Applications to the School of Law increased 33% this year, far outpacing the national average of 6.5%, and a survey of incoming students showed that the new third year program was an important factor affecting their decision to matriculate to W&L.
Andrea Hilton, W&L's admission director, found the survey results interesting because the third year of law school is usually a distant concern for incoming students.
"Our new third-year program has definitely changed the conversation," says Hilton.