Law Schools

Law school grapples with student surplus after switch to 3L practical skills training


Washington & Lee University’s law school had so many students accepting enrollment offers last year that it had to offer financial incentives to defer some of them until 2013. Even then, the school enrolled about 185 students in the fall of 2012, 50 more than usual.

Indiana University law professor William Henderson cites the example as proof that the law school is seeing success with a decision to emphasize practical skills in the third year, a project begun by ‘09 Legal Rebel Rodney Smolla, the former dean of the law school. “A sizable number of prospective students really do care about practical skills training and are voting with their feet,” Henderson writes at the Legal Whiteboard. The title to the post says the school is the “biggest legal education story of 2013.”

Henderson also cites survey results indicating the school has made gains in student experience and outperformed competitor schools since adopting the new curriculum. The findings “ought to be a watershed for legal education,” he writes.

Washington & Lee outlines its third-year curriculum on its website. It includes:

• A two-week long skills immersion at the beginning of each semester.

• One “real-client experience” in the form of a clinic, an externship or a transnational human rights program.

• At least 40 hours of law-related service.

Washington & Lee provided Henderson with data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement comparing 3Ls in the new curriculum in 2012 with 3Ls from 2008 who were enrolled in traditional courses. The 3Ls in 2012 engaged in more analysis and more application of theories to practical problems, asked more questions in class, were more likely to come to class prepared, and were more likely to put together ideas or concepts from different courses for assignments or classroom discussions.

Washington & Lee is also outperforming a group of peers it selected for benchmark comparisons for the survey.

Henderson concludes there is still room for improvement, but he applauds Washington & Lee’s gains. “To use a simple metaphor,” Henderson writes, “W&L is tooling around in a Model-T while the rest of us rely on horse and buggy. What ought to be plain to all of us, however, is that, just like automobile industry circa 1910, we are entering a period of staggering transformation that will last decades. And transformation will be roughly equal parts creation and destruction.”

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “NYU Law School Will Offer New Study and Internship Options for 3Ls”

Updated at 11:42 a.m. to add information about Rodney Smolla.

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