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Washington and Lee’s New Model

I believe law schools have many noble missions, including the education and preparation of students as future legal professionals, contributing to the marketplace of ideas and the evolution of law and policy through scholarship and other forms of intellectual endeavor, serving the public through pro bono activity, public service, and civic engagement, and contributing to the larger world of the university and higher education.  We are in a period of ferment in which law schools are beginning to experiment, and I think this will enrich all of us in the world of legal education, and be good for the profession and the public at large.   

As Dean of Washington and Lee I am proud that we have committed to a bold program to quite radically revamp our third-year of law school, adding to the national conversation about the mission and character of “the law school of the future,” to borrow a phrase from my friend, former colleague, and dean-in-waiting Erwin Chemerinsky.  Here are the salient features of the new Washington and Lee third year:

  • The new third year curriculum will be entirely “experiential,” comprised of law practice simulations, real-client experiences, the development of professionalism, and development of law practice skills. 

  • Each semester will begin with a two week immersion course in practice skills, one focusing on office and transactional practice skills, the other on litigation and conflict resolution skills. 

  • All students will participate in a year-long professionalism program that will include the participation of practicing lawyers and judges and assist 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 entirely through a mix of “practicum” courses that simulate legal practice environments, legal clinics, and internships. 

  • The practicum courses will be taught by members of the permanent law faculty, adjunct faculty, and visiting “professors of practice” drawn from the bar and bench. 

  • Students will not “study law from books,” or sit in classrooms engaging in dialogue with a professor at a podium.  The demanding intellectual content of the third year will instead be presented in realistic settings that simulate actual client experiences, requiring students to exercise professional judgment, work in teams, solve problems, counsel clients, negotiate solutions, serve as advocates and counselors—the full complement of professional activity that engages practicing lawyers as they apply legal theory and legal doctrines to the real-world issues of serving clients ethically and honorably within the highest traditions of the profession.

  • Practicum courses will span the array of traditional legal subject matter: antitrust, banking, corporate finance, securities law, tax, family law, environmental law, criminal law, employment law, intellectual property, estate planning, media law, civil rights and civil liberties practice—in short, anything and everything that might be offered in a traditional law school course. 

If you are interested in finding out more you can get a much more detailed blueprint of our plan at Washington and Lee’s website:


As I recently posted as well on Brian Leiter’s blog, we have never conceptualized this as a trade-off between intellectual and theoretical depth on the one hand and practical skills training on the other.  In reaching the judgment that our practicum courses offer the opportunity to increase the intellectual rigor of courses, we have drawn from our own teaching experiences and the experiences of colleagues at other law schools who have experimented with these formants.  Lyman Johnson has for years taught an intellectually demanding business planning course at W & L using this model.  This year, as a pilot example, I taught a practicum course entitled “The Campus and the Constitution.” The course is divided into three “cycles”: (1) Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom on Campus; (2) Identity: Race, Religion, Gender, Sexual Orientation; and (3) Property, Process, and Structure of University Governance. Each cycle is coupled with a focus on development of a particular professional skill: (1) Client Counseling; (2) Advocacy; and (3) Negotiation and Policy Drafting.  In past years I could easily have taught this course as research seminar, or as traditional classroom course with an exam, or some hybrid blend of both.  What I have experienced in teaching it as a “practicum” is that I, as the professor, am no longer the epicenter of the learning experience.  The student is.  And all without any fall off in either doctrinal coverage or theoretical engagement.  Indeed, I will make the claim that by forcing students to engage in counseling or advocacy or negotiation exercises in which advanced legal doctrines are tested against the hydraulic pressure of realistic settings, there is more opportunity for theory to emerge as a critical component of creative and sophisticated lawyering. 


Finally, setting Washington and Lee aside, I am delighted at the robust discussion now taking place in legal education, and I am confident many law schools will experiment in a variety of interesting and progressive new ways, to our collective benefit.   


–Rod Smolla, Dean, Washington and Lee School of Law

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