Washington and Lee takes law students from class to court

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

LEXINGTON, VA. -- A tycoon was dead. Across a polished wooden conference table on a recent morning, surviving kin and their lawyers haggled over the eight-figure estate.

Or so it appeared. In fact, the lawyers were law students, the grieving relatives were lawyers and the mediation session was an elaborate simulation, replaying a probate battle that had been waged in Virginia courts.

This is what the third year looks like at the Washington and Lee University law school, an experiment that breaks with 140 years of tradition on how law should be taught. Success could set the Virginia institution apart among an intensely competitive tier of law schools vying for national recognition. Failure could send it hurtling down the rankings, where it has been losing ground.

Most members of Washington and Lee's Class of 2010 have abandoned the lecture hall to spend their final year of law school learning how law is practiced -- including the mundanities of dressing for court and the intricacies of taking depositions and writing briefs on deadline.

Students are working court cases from complaint to verdict, matching wits with opposing counsel, currying favor with judges and managing difficult clients, real and simulated.

"You can act like a real attorney. It's kind of scary," said Elizabeth Clarke, who is spending part of her third year at Washington and Lee in an "externship" at the commonwealth's attorney's office in Botetourt County, 38 miles from campus. She recently watched, for the first time, a judge send to jail a man she had prosecuted under the supervision of an actual prosecutor.

Leaders at Washington and Lee say that within the hidebound world of legal education, their new curriculum amounts to revolutionary change.

Most law students spend their three years in classrooms, analyzing landmark cases to learn the legal reasoning behind them. The case method, as it is known, was pioneered at Harvard in the 1870s. The last year of law school much resembles the first, and it is widely regarded as the weakest: Third-year students have learned to think like lawyers, and the work has become routine.

The model has been criticized for stressing theory over practice. Law schools mostly leave it to firms to teach new associates how to work with real cases and clients.

"Some people say that we, the legal academy, are not doing a good enough job training lawyers for the lives that they will lead," said Dan Polsby, dean of the law school at George Mason University. "People don't know where the courthouse is. They don't have the street smarts."

Reworking Harvard model

Change is afoot across the discipline, although most of the reforms are built around a conventional curriculum.

Harvard has overhauled its lessons in the past few years, adding a required course on real-world problem-solving and focusing on clinics and job opportunities. Stanford allows students more access to courses in disciplines such as engineering and business and has expanded its clinical program. Northwestern University and the University of Dayton have effectively eliminated the third-year problem by offering a degree in two years.

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