In an innovation that may well transform the future of legal education, the Washington and Lee School of Law has announced a new third-year curriculum that will replace all academic classes with practical simulations, real-client interactions and the development of law practice skills. In addition to exposing students to “actual interactions with clients,” the program will teach them to “keep track of their billing hours” according to an article by Vesna Jaksic in today’s National Law Journal. The subject matter of the simulations will include traditional topics like banking and corporate finance, securities law, environmental law and family law. The program will require students to obtain a Virginia practice certificate and take part in real life client cases during the course of a year long professionalism program.
The pioneering program, aimed at providing more of a hands-on experience for future lawyers, may have some disadvantages that practice oriented professionals may overlook. Law schools by their nature are academic institutions that are devoted to scholarship. Arguably, the law school experience is already too short a time to learn a significant amount of substantive law. Devoting the third year to practice rather than substance might shortchange students in the study of law. After all, many of them will be spending the rest of their lives in the practice of law.
A medical school model for the third year of law school has its attraction from the point of view of the practitioner. Revising law school curricula to integrate more clinical education into traditional scholarship may be a better way to take into account the practical aspects of law without sacrificing the academic mission of law school. In any event, the challenge of a modern practical legal scholarship is a daunting one.