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Third-year conversion

Story by Chris Graham

smollacover.jpgIt’s one thing to learn from a book or a lecturing professor. It’s another entirely to get your hands dirty learning something the hard way.

Washington and Lee University wants to give its law students the experience of what it’s really like to do hands-on lawyering.

“The idea is that instead of learning from a book or learning from a professor at a podium, everything that the student will experience in the third year will be presented to the student as if it were an actual practice situation,” said Rodney Smolla, the dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law, which announced last week that it is reforming the third year of its three-year curriculum to emphasize experiential-learning opportunities.

The move is being called “transformative” by former American Bar Association president Robert Grey. It has been more than a century since law schools made any significant changes to their educational offerings, though there has been debate for years about whether something new needed to be done to make legal education more relevant, a debate that intensified last year with the release of a report by the Carnegie Foundation critiquing law schools for not being effective at training students to apply what they learn to solving real-world problems.

Under the Washington and Lee reform, which will be phased in over each of the next three academic years, traditional classroom instruction will be replaced by practice simulations, real-client interactions and the development of law-practice skills.

“The student would be presented with a simulation of an actual client’s problem – a file, or a client would come and explain the issue. And the student, working in teams with other students, would have to work their way through all the legal issues, prepare all the legal documents that a lawyer would prepare in relation to them, engage in the exercises that real lawyers would engage in, which would be interviewing people, negotiating matters with another side, putting together contracts, appearing in court, anything that an actual lawyer would do,” Smolla said.

“This could be anything under the sun. It could be a family-law problem in which someone wants to adopt a child. It could be a sophisticated business problem in which someone wants to take a corporation public or buy a company in another nation. It could be anything at all that lawyers do,” Smolla said.

The change should better prepare law students for what they will face when they get out into the professional world – and cut down on the amount of time and expense that firms have to invest in young lawyers to get them ready for the rigors of their new jobs.

“Part of taking students out of law school is that it gives you a chance to train them in the way in which you practice. So in one sense, you want raw talent, and you can shape them in a way that is supportive and will advance the culture in which you are bringing them into. At the same time, what I think Dean Smolla is doing is taking the best of all of those characteristics and attributes and introducing them to law students before they become lawyers in a way that is very practical and thoughtful and meaningful to the experience that they will have when they graduate,” said Grey, a partner in the Richmond law firm of Hunton & Williams and a member of the Washington and Lee University Board of Trustees.

“It will give employers an opportunity to take a student who has a better understanding of what to expect when they come into the job market and into the law firm or government service or public-service environment,” Grey said. “I think that one of the great strengths to what Washington and Lee and Dean Smolla are doing are giving students a variety of experiences, not just a private law firm experience. But it’s also understanding what it means to be a government lawyer, what it means to have a job promoting public-interest law, being a transactional lawyer versus being a litigation lawyer. And while you may not wear all those hats during your legal career, understanding and appreciating what lawyers do in those particular roles can’t be anything but helpful.”

The new model for third-year education is being tested out in a handful of classes offered to current students at W&L. Lisa Hedrick, the managing editor of the W&L Law Review and a third-year student in the School of Law who has already accepted a business-law position at a Richmond law firm that she will begin this summer, is taking a business-planning class that has her and other students putting together mock business deals that include drafting operating agreements, accounting for intellectual-property issues and tax issues and more.

“I’m hoping that this will help make my transition into practice a lot easier, because I’ll have at least some minimal exposure to sort of the kinds of questions that I need to ask when starting a new business or doing a business deal,” Hedrick said.

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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