Washington and Lee takes law students from class to court

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; B01

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.

In the Washington area, the University of Maryland has long required law students to complete clinical work. The University of Virginia law school has developed practical training in business basics, such as how to read a financial statement. The University of the District of Columbia law school requires clinical work in all three years, the most of any law school, and offers courses on social justice developed by students and faculty, said Shelley Broderick, the dean.

But Washington and Lee is among the first to throw out an entire year of the Harvard model. A lot rides on the experiment, which began this fall. The school has fallen from 22nd to 30th in the U.S. News & World Report rankings over the past five years, a slide that administrators attribute to fractional gains by rivals in areas such as student-faculty ratio and financial aid. (Dean Rodney Smolla, who led the redesign, announced this week that he will leave Lexington to become president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.)

Applications to Washington and Lee rose by one-third this year, to 3,416 for 135 seats, an encouraging sign.

Faculty members spent six years preparing the new program. Current third-year students had the right to opt out, and 49 did. Henceforth, only the new curriculum will be offered.

The goal of the new lessons is to teach third-year students how law is practiced in the real world, in contrast to the sterile predictability of the classroom. In one of the new courses, students received an e-mail on a Friday night announcing a major change in a document due Monday morning.

"Their initial reaction was to think, 'This is messed up,' " said Bob Danforth, associate dean for academic affairs. "Well, that's exactly why we're doing this."

The new third year began with a two-week course that took students through a court case from start to finish. It was a grueling, sunup to sundown affair, not unlike the boot camp running next door at the Virginia Military Institute. Another two-week exercise will open the second semester.

But the core of the curriculum lies in 20 new practical courses, each designed to teach students an area of law by simulating legal proceedings.

A 'grand experiment'

In a conference room on campus one recent Friday, instructors nearly outnumbered the seven students, who acted as lawyers battling over an estate. Everyone wore suits. A law professor, a retired judge and three lawyers played various parts, occasionally breaking character to talk shop.

"When you get to trial, when you get to the courtroom, you've gotta be flexible," said Charles Sims, a lawyer donating time to the course. He addressed students who, moments earlier, had been representing him. "The other side may change their themes on you. I've walked into a courtroom, and I've had four different openings."

For a practicum on appellate law, students prepared written and oral arguments for cases pending before the state and federal supreme courts.

"You see good lawyers, and you see bad lawyers," said John Thomas, a third-year student. "And you can learn from the good ones, and you can learn from the bad ones."

Thomas sat with some classmates in the cafeteria beneath the U.S. Supreme Court chambers, which his class visited to hear oral arguments in two cases they had studied and to gawk at the marble and finery.

Each student at the table has a year-long externship. In addition to Clarke, who is working in Botetourt, Thomas is clerking for a judge in Roanoke, and Andrew Fadale is working for a federal prosecutor.

There is a tradeoff in the new curriculum. Students lose the chance to take high-level courses offered in a traditional third year, classes typically taken by top students vying for prestigious clerkships with federal judges.

Fadale and his classmates said they hope that prospective employers will see the appeal of the new curriculum.

"If this whole grand experiment works," Clarke said, "it could project Washington and Lee law school to a whole new level."

For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company