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Washington And Lee Reforming The Law School Experience

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The path to becoming a lawyer may become smoother thanks to an innovative program at Washington and Lee University.
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The path to becoming a lawyer may become smoother thanks to an innovative program at Washington and Lee University.

As our laws and government regulations get more complicated, you might expect law schools to be extending coursework. Instead, Washington and Lee is taking a very different approach, doing away with a third year of classes. It's a change that is reshaping education for young lawyers in Virginia.

When Jim Moliterno graduated from law school, he wasn't ready to practice law: "I still tell my students a story about meeting one of my very first clients and having this sensation, after she explained to me the many legal problems that she had, that the words that wanted to come out of my mouth were, 'You really should see a lawyer.'"

Providing a more practical law education

Today, Moliterno teaches law at Washington and Lee University, which has stopped offering third year classes in favor of something more practical.

"Rather than listening to a lecture, taking notes or preparing for an exam — none of which lawyers actually do — what happens is they're presented with client problems, either real or simulated, and then have to try to craft solutions to those problems," explains Bob Danforth, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

He says law firms, state and local bar associations are asking law schools to help students develop more practical skills: "Interviewing a client, drafting the pleadings that are required to get a case to court, negotiating with opposing counsel, preparing opening statements and preparing direct examination of witnesses.".

So the school offers workshops in which senior attorneys and faculty members play the roles of clients, while students attempt to address their legal problems. In one such example, students are wrapping up two weeks of work to help the buyers and sellers of a company. They've seen the kind of documents they'd actually use in such a transaction and learned to think about business, political and economic considerations. They also learn about the business side of law firms and how to keep people happy.

"Managing such things as the expectations of clients, learning how to tell a client that he or she can't do something, those are things that are very hard to learn when you're out on your own," says Danforth. "Fortunately, we're giving them the opportunity to make their mistakes before it really matters."

The benefits for future employers

Theoretically, these students will need far less on-the-job training by law firms. Danforth and Moliterno say that should make them more attractive hires. The billing rates for young lawyers are high regardless of their experience, so they say it's hard for firms to give young lawyers time to learn instead of generating revenue.

"The biggest firms still pay a significant salary —$120,000 to $140,000 a year — and it's also more and more common for beginning lawyers coming out of law school to have to open up their own office and be a little bit entrepreneurial. And so they especially need something in their law school experience that they can build on and get a little bit of a head start on," says Moliterno.

It also makes Washington and Lee more attractive to students like Jennifer Dean, who like a hands-on approach to learning: "It appealed to me when I was researching law schools. Being able to provide the practical experience really takes the edge out of the learning curve upon graduation, and it exposes you to a variety of different areas. I'm particular excited about the citizenship and immigration program which I'll be undertaking this semester, which involves working with clients regarding asylum cases."

The third year practicum also gives students a better idea of what kind of law they'd like to practice. To serve third year students, Washington and Lee is creating a new curriculum with extensive help from Virginia's major law firms. About fifty attorneys have volunteered to help design teaching materials and to take part in workshops.

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