Dean Smolla Discusses Third Year Reform in Legal Times

Lexington, VA • Monday, September 01, 2008

We're Preparing 3Ls for Professional Life
New curriculum at Washington and Lee aims to give students practical experiences.

By Rodney A. Smolla

To borrow from the Marine Corps, we at Washington and Lee law school are looking for a few good lawyers.

Our society does not train doctors, business leaders,clergy, journalists, engineers, scientists, or architects entirely from books and classrooms, but through a combination of classroom and hands-on experience.

For many years, voices in the legal profession have called on law schools to innovate, to place greater emphasis on professionalism and learning in context often found in other professional programs.

And so, Washington and Lee is embarking on a dramatic revision of its law school curriculum, re-inventing the third year of law school to make it an integrative and experiential year devoted to the development of professionalism through simulated and actual practice experiences.

The overarching goal of our reform is to distinguish the learning process in the final year of law school, thoughtfully preparing students for the transition to professional life. We seek to blend, creatively and constructively, academic and professional values. In the afterglow of the Beijing Olympics, our purpose is well-captured in the wisdom of a Chinese proverb: "Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me, I will understand."

Practicum Courses

Our aspiration is to generate energy and synergy in two directions—we will push the law school into the profession, and invite the profession into the law school. All students will participate in a year-long professionalism program that will include the participation of practicing lawyers and judges. The program will guide students in the development of professionalism in all its aspects, including legal ethics, civility in practice, civic engagement and leadership, and pro bono service.

The core intellectual experiences in the third year will be presented principally through "practicum" courses that simulate legal practice environments. They will require students to exercise professional judgment, work in teams, solve problems, draft legal documents, counsel clients, negotiate solutions, serve as advocates and counselors—the full complement of professional activity required of lawyers. In an advanced family law course, for example, students will negotiate a prenuptial agreement and do oral argument in a custody proceeding.

We at Washington and Lee have never conceptualized our new curriculum as a trade-off between intellectual and theoretical depth on the one hand and practical skills training on the other. Drawing from our own teaching experiences and the experiences of colleagues at other law schools, as well as from the insights and experiences of other professions, we have reached the judgment that our reform will increase the intellectual rigor of the third year, while simultaneously encouraging the development of a wide range of other professional skills. In both substance and symbol, dedicating an entire year to integrative and contextual learning will give us the opportunity to transform our conception of what it means to be a law school.

Serious Innovation

We are in an important period of serious innovation in American legal education. The thoughtful and ambitious improvements that many law schools across the country are now implementing will be good for the profession, good for our system of justice, and good for the public.

At Washington and Lee, we have not chosen two years of "law school" and one year of "practice." Our approach is three years of education. We know that our students follow a wide variety of career paths after graduation. Whatever they choose to do, we believe we need to be more ambitious in our conception of what it means to provide them with the deepest and most engaging educational experience possible.

In the words of the architect Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood . . . Aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die."

We are indeed aiming high, as are many other law schools around the country. The profession and the public will be better for it.

Rodney A. Smolla is dean at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va.

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