Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What was the motivation for undertaking this change?
A. Our principal motivation was the desire to meet a need that exists in the legal profession and legal education. Responding to the growing critique of the traditional law school model, we have undertaken this change with the conviction that it is the right thing to do in fulfilling our duties to the public consumers of legal services, to the profession, and to the system of justice.
Q. Is Washington and Lee the only law school engaged in such a program?
A. We are in a period in which many law schools are responding to the needs of the public and the profession, engaging in significant programmatic changes. In that sense, Washington and Lee is not alone. Different schools will have different approaches and responses. At Washington and Lee we are proud of our forceful leadership. We are confident the result of these changes will be a richer array of choices to incoming students and a new generation of graduating law students who will be better able to serve their future employers and clients.
Q. What was the process that Washington and Lee used to develop this new curriculum?
A. The new curriculum was initially proposed by the Dean of the Law School, Rod Smolla. A representative group of faculty members, administrators, and students intensely studied the idea for six months. The views of outside academics, members of the profession, and alumni were actively solicited. Many forums and town meetings with students and alumni were held. The committee issued a report and recommendation unanimously endorsing the reform. The committee emphasized that the proposal was consistent with the student-centered tradition at W&L and with the Law School's existing strategic plan. The full faculty considered the matter over the course of several formal meetings and informal discussions. The Proposal of the Committee and the Dean was ultimately approved in a unanimous faculty vote.
Q. How does the new third year differ from working experiences law students already have, such as working part-time in legal environments or summer legal employment?
A. There is no comparing the third year program with outside employment. The Washington and Lee third year program is education, not employment. While the teaching methodology in the program will be centered on realistic practice simulations and real-client experiences, such as those provided in our legal clinics, these experiences are integrated with the learning of new intellectual subject matter (legal theory and doctrine ), and constantly evaluated through mentoring, guidance, self-critique, and other feedback. Features such as the professionalism program, the transactional practice intensive and litigation practice intensive distinguish the new third year as a bridge to practice, but distinguish it from actual practice.
Q. Does the program have the support from the University administration?
A. Yes. It has the full support of the University President and Provost, and the University Board of Trustees.
Q. Does the program have the support of alumni?
A. Yes. Our alumni leaders have been quite passionately supportive of the proposal, and that support was instrumental in our resolve to push forward with the proposal and will be critical to our future success.
Q. From a student's perspective, will this make the third year harder?
A. Yes. The third year will certainly be a more rigorous and demanding experience than it currently is. By the same token, it will also be more rewarding and stimulating.
Q. How will the profession react to this change?
A. The initial response is extremely positive, and we are confident that the profession will embrace this as an idea whose time has come. Many voices in the profession have been calling on law schools to innovate, with greater emphasis on professionalism and learning in context, so that students learn not just how to think like a lawyer but be a lawyer. This program invites the profession to participate in the joint venture of mentoring novice lawyers, and we believe the profession will support the concept enthusiastically.
Q. How will other law schools and law professors react to this change?
A. This is a period of genuine ferment and creativity in the history of legal education. Many other law schools are engaged in new approaches that reform the traditional curriculum. We respect and admire those efforts, and do not believe that one size fits all or that there is only one best approach to the challenges that face all law schools. This is a process that has been evolving for many years and appears now to be reaching greater intensity. Washington and Lee hopes to be a leader in these efforts, and the proposal here is, in our view, truly transformative and not simply incremental. We hope it will encourage other schools to continue to approach their missions with robust creativity and ambition.
Q. Will the new curriculum be optional or required?
A. It will ultimately become mandatory for all third year students. During the phase- in period over the next three to four years, it will be optional.
Q. What types of skills will be emphasized?
A. The content of the third year will be presented in realistic settings that simulate actual client experiences, 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. This activity includes interviewing and counseling of clients, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, understanding financial statements, principles of financial valuation, and other skills of the kind identified in the MacCrate Report and in Professor Roy Stuckey's recent BEST PRACTICES FOR LEGAL EDUCATION (2007). The development of strong writing and communication skills will be a prominent feature of the entire program.
Q. Will there still be grades?
A. Yes. The new third year program will continue to use grades. The modes of evaluation, however, will be much more meaningful than the traditional law school exam or research paper. A far wider range of professional skills will be engaged and evaluated. While we will continue to assign grades, the truly meaningful evaluation will be ongoing, task by task, as faculty supervisors and mentors provide verbal and written feedback and critique on an ongoing basis.
Q. How quickly will the program be implemented?
A. We will begin to implement the program immediately. Our working timetable is to achieve a 25 percent phase-in by the 2008-09 academic year, 75 percent two years from now (2009-10), and 100 percent three years from now (2010-11).
Q. How will this be paid for?
A. We will redeploy existing law school resources combined with new resources developed in the coming Law School campaign, part of a broader University campaign, to finance the program.
Q. Will third year students be required to get a third-year practice certificate?
A. Yes. All of our students will qualify for such a certificate, which in Virginia allows a third year student to engage in certain prescribed forms of practice in state tribunals under the supervision of a licensed attorney upon certification that certain requirements set by the Supreme Court of Virginia are satisfied. Many federal courts have similar programs. We will require students to obtain the certificate and provide the appropriate counseling and support to facilitate their obtaining one.
Q. Will there still be time for extracurricular activity such as participation in law reviews, moot court competitions, and student organizations?
A. Yes. Once again, these activities will be subsumed into the law-related service requirement, which both makes space for such activity and actually requires such activity in some form as an element of the ethos of professionalism that drives the new program.
Q. Will students have fewer options to explore different areas of legal study?
A. No, to the contrary. The practicum courses may cover any subject matter that might be the subject of a traditional course. Because of the rich array of traditional faculty, new professors of practice, and adjunct faculty that we will use to staff the program, there are actually increased opportunities for diversity in subject matter areas and dramatically increased opportunities for exploring those subjects.
Q. Will the program adversely impact the ability to take liberal arts law courses such as research seminars?
A. This was a significant concern for us, and we have set out to address it in a number of ways. First, we have added a major research paper requirement to be taken in a liberal arts style law seminar in the second year of law school. Second, we are confident that many of the topics that would be covered in a traditional research seminar lend themselves easily, and in many respects more deeply, to presentation in the new third year practicum format.
Q. How will the changes in the third year impact the first and second years?
A. The new third year experience is part of a broader undertaking at Washington and Lee to improve all of our educational efforts, including the first and second year experiences. We are already looking at ways to bolster our first year legal research and writing program, which is at present one of the Law School's signature high-quality programs. We are considering the addition of an international course in the first year. We have already made the decision to make the second year more distinctive by requiring a research seminar and extended research paper. Our overall goal is to make the first, second, and third years distinctive, marking a progression from the academic study of law to strong competency and professionalism as a practicing novice lawyer.
Q. How will this impact the student/faculty ratio?
A. The student/faculty ratio will improve. Washington and Lee is already quite fortunate to have a relatively small student body size and an excellent student/faculty ratio, which is one of the features that allows the school to undertake such an ambitious program. The new third year will require some additional investment in faculty resources, enhancing our capacity to provide students with individualized attention.
Q. How will the program affect the ability of students to engage in community service and pro bono work?
A. The ability of ability of students to engage in community service and pro bono work will be enhanced. Engagement in law-related service of some kind will be required of all students and will be central to the ethos of professionalism that is a core value of the program.
Q. Will it affect American Bar Association accreditation?
A. The new curriculum, as currently planned, will fully conform to existing American Bar Association accreditation standards. Fortunately, the Law School will be undergoing its periodic seven-year ABA evaluation and accreditation process in the 2008-09 academic year, so there will be an opportunity during that process to ensure that the new program meets or exceeds ABA requirements in all respects. The ABA has been a strong voice within the legal profession urging law schools to place greater emphasis on professionalism in all its aspects. Our discussions with ABA leaders give us confidence that the ABA, as a prominent force in the shaping of the profession, will strongly endorse the values that drive the proposal.
Q. How will the program affect the ability of students to pass the bar exam?
A. We are confident the new program will have no adverse impact on the bar passage rates of Washington and Lee students. Our students already have superb bar passage rates. As a practical matter, most American law students take some form of commercial bar preparation course as a prelude to taking the bar exam. There will be no fall-off in the exposure of students to the legal doctrines and principles tested on bar exams. Because we are confident that students learn with greater breadth and depth through the integrative methods featured in the third year, we are confident the students will not be prejudiced in any way in their bar preparation.
Q. How will this affect the employment prospects for students?
A. It will only help. We are confident that prospective employers from all elements of the profession will value a student's exposure to the application of legal doctrine and theory in realistic contexts in which the student must work with others to apply professional judgment, address the realistic concerns and problems of clients, and provide informed counsel and vigorous advocacy.
Q. Will this adversely impact the ability of faculty to pursue research and scholarship?
A. We believe that the teaching, research, and service components of the professor's life should be complementary and mutually reinforcing. A central mission of a law faculty member is contribution to the marketplace of ideas through excellence in scholarly research and productivity. Law students also participate in such intellectual research and discourse. The creation of a new third-year experience should enhance, not diminish, the capacity of law faculty and students to produce excellent scholarship. Washington and Lee is fortunate to have a strong tradition of excellence in faculty scholarship. We are committed to constantly improve our scholarly productivity and are confident that this proposal will actually provide faculty with greater flexibility in scheduling and course loads, thereby enhancing scholarly efforts. It will also provide faculty with a richer array of experiences placing faculty members in contact with the profession, thereby informing and enriching scholarship.