Most talk about 'curricular reform' in legal education is usually quite modest--a few more clinical offerings here, a new course in the first year there. Washington & Lee, by contrast, has adopted a really quite radical revision of the curriculum. The details of the new third year at Washington & Lee are here. A brief excerpt to give a flavor of how dramatic a change this is:
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....
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.
One law professor at another school, who called the proposal to my attention, wrote to me with some reasonable concerns about this curricular change:
If 100% practice is the way to run the third year, isn't the obvious answer to make a J.D. program a two year affair? Also, it creates horrible choices for students, who have only the 2L year in which to take electives. If Jurisprudence conflicts on the schedule with Evidence, you have to take one or the other, but you can't take both. (W & L has a small faculty and on small faculties many electives are offered only one time per academic year, and in some cases only every other academic year.) Similarly, even if the conflict is between Jurisprudence and Partnership Tax, it forces choices on students that they should not face. And, you also have to ask about how a practical curriculum will (must?) affect faculty hiring choices -- are traditional hiring criteria the appropriate standards for faculty for the 3L year? I'm guessing "no," on the theory that J.D./D. Phil. isn't likely able (or very much interested) in teaching a civil practice clinic or a practicum on drafting wills. . . Maybe there's some merit to this "reform" that I'm just not seeing, but it seems like a very risky, "all in" kind of move.
It is clearly very risky: if it succeeds, it will transform Washington & Lee into a leader in legal education, to which the top firms will flock for new hires; if it fails--because, for example, good students and faculty choose to go elsewhere--Washington & Lee may never recover as a top 30-35 law school with a quasi-national status. The risk, put simply, is that within the legal academy, interdisciplinary scholarship is the coin of prestige in the realm, which is why one finds schools like Stanford, under Dean Larry Kramer, touting initiatives like more JD/PhD programs, and why elite law schools hire almost exclusively interdisciplinary scholars. Washington & Lee is, as my correspondent noted, going to have to do very different faculty hiring in order to staff this ambitious new program. If it succeeds, students and ultimately employers will be the beneficiaries, and other schools will no doubt follow suit. But in the short term there is a real risk that Washington & Lee's reputation among legal academics may take a real hit.
Signed comments strongly preferred, as always. I am curious to hear what others--faculty, practitioners, and students--think about this initiative. (Post only once: comments may take awhile to appear.)