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It's been more than 100 years since law schools in the United States have overhauled how they teach students. The Washington and Lee University School of Law looks to change that with today's announcement of a bold plan to reform the third year of law school.
"For some time, members of the legal profession, practitioners, judges and scholars alike, have urged law schools to place greater emphasis on professionalism and learning in context," said Dean Rodney A. Smolla. "W&L's new third year responds to these needs by requiring students to exercise professional judgment, work in teams, solve problems, counsel clients, negotiate solutions, serve as advocates and counselors—the full complement of professional activity that engages practicing lawyers."
The new third-year curriculum, approved unanimously by the Law School faculty, will be entirely experiential in nature. Traditional classroom instruction will be replaced by practice simulations, real-client interactions and the development of law practice skills. All third year students will be required to obtain a Virginia practice certificate and participate in at least one real-client experience during the year.
At the same time, students will be immersed in a yearlong professionalism program that explores what it means to "live one's life in the law." This part of the curriculum features study and reflection on legal ethics, civility in practice, civic leadership and pro bono service.
"We believe it is incumbent on our Law School to be more ambitious in our mission and innovative in our approach to education as we strive to fulfill our duties to the public consumers of legal services, to the profession, and to the system of justice," added Smolla. "I am proud of the leadership our faculty has shown in undertaking this noble effort."
Courses in the new curriculum will be offered in the traditional clinic and externship environments as well as in new practicum studies. These project simulations will span the array of traditional legal subject matter, including transactional areas such as banking and corporate finance that have often been overlooked in the hands-on offerings of traditional law school curriculums. (Click here to read some example practicum descriptions.)
The professionalism program will dig deep in considering the admirable qualities, dispositions, attitudes, concerns and habits—moral and intellectual—of good lawyers. Students will reflect on the obligations associated with membership in a learned profession and on their personal responsibility for law and its purposes, including a commitment to service and appreciating the myriad ways a lawyer can and should exercise civic leadership.
W&L's new third year will be staffed by a combination of permanent faculty, adjunct faculty and "professors of practice" drawn from legal practice and the bench. These faculty members will mentor students throughout the year and provide immediate and ongoing feedback on their work product and their reflections on real-world ethical dilemmas.
Students in the International Law Practicum, one of the early practice-based courses the law school currently offers, meet to plan their March trip to Liberia.
Washington and Lee University President Kenneth P. Ruscio and the Board of Trustees endorsed the new curriculum fully.
"Twenty years ago W&L blazed a trail for the first year of law school, developing the small class section model that has been emulated by top law schools across the nation," said President Ruscio. "With the new third year, the School of Law will again be in the vanguard of curriculum innovation."
Former American Bar Association President Robert J. Grey '76L also greeted news of the curriculum change enthusiastically.
"This reform is an innovative and practical way for law students to transition from the academic environment into the profession," said Grey. "I believe my colleagues across the nation will laud Washington and Lee for implementing this challenging new model for legal education."
Grey, who is a partner in the law firm of Hunton & Williams and a member of the Washington and Lee University Board of Trustees, has an extensive practice focused on administrative matters before state and federal agencies, mediation and dispute resolution, and legislative representation of clients.
W&L students have reacted positively to the curriculum reform. In fact, over half of the students in the 3L class already are engaged in real-world experiences as part of their education, participating in the various clinics, externships, and practicum courses the School of Law currently offers.
One such student is Lisa Hedrick '08L, who, in addition to serving as a student representative on the Law School committee that developed the third year proposal, took part in Professor Lyman Johnson's business planning practicum, which is aimed at students who expect to be legal advisors to business leaders.
"Professor Johnson's class was more challenging in many respects than a traditional course," said Hedrick. "And it certainly highlights that in the actual practice of law there usually isn't a clear answer. The problems we explored forced us to draw from many different areas of the law to construct a solution for our client."
Current plans call for the new curriculum to be phased in over the next three to four years. A number of optional courses following the experiential model will be available next year for rising third-year students. The faculty plan to be in a position to offer the new model to all students who opt for it as a substantial portion of their third-year experience two years from now. After the phase-in period, the new curriculum will be required for all students who matriculate at the School of Law.
W&L is also inviting a distinguished group of external advisors from across the legal arena to assist in the planning and execution of this new curriculum, and it is likely that some of the advisory board members will become instructors in the third year.
More information about W&L's new third year of law school is available online at law.wlu.edu/thirdyear.