What’s a Kirgis Fellow?

Perhaps the most unique aspect of W&L’s first year experience and the offering students find most helpful is the Kirgis Fellows program. Named for esteemed Washington and Lee Emeritus Professor of Law and former Dean, Frederic Kirgis, the Kirgis Fellows are a select group of second- and third-year law students who serve as formal mentors to first-year students. These students go through a formal training program and work with groups of 1Ls both during Orientation and throughout their first year of law school. In this capacity, they provide information about law school life, University services, extracurricular options, and study skills.

For everyone, there will come a time (and most likely, times) during your first year of law school when you will be a little stressed out, a little unsure, a little nervous, and it’s nice to know that you have someone to whom you can turn who very likely endured the same stresses, challenges and difficulties. As one of our current Kirgis Fellows, Stacey Valentine commented, “I wanted to be a Kirgis because I constantly find myself saying, ‘If I had only known then what I know now.’ Law school can be a great time and also a really difficult time, and knowing how to navigate the challenges ahead can make such a substantial difference. It is so important to have someone you can ask the dumb questions you are too afraid or embarrassed to ask someone else.’

So many of the current Kirgis Fellows were attracted to the program because they found it so helpful during their first year of law school. As current Kirgis Fellow, Rob Vrana, reflected, “I wanted to be a Kirgis because I found the program so helpful last year. I was attracted to it because I felt like I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise known when starting law school. And who better to help first years out than someone who just finished their first year? That’s why the program is so valuable; it provides the students what they don’t get in the classroom. It’s a way of making sure they learn more than just how to speak in class and how to do research and writing. I think it’s really satisfying to give them the extra information and guidance that they need. I’m hoping that my section will be able to relax somewhat because they know I’ll be there to help them along.”

Head Kirgis Fellow, Caitlin Cottingham, believes the program makes the first year a little easier, particularly in those trying, initial weeks: “The Kirgis Fellows take some of the stress out of first year, especially in the first few weeks of classes.  The program was helpful to me as a first year because I got a student’s perspective on many of my concerns. . . It’s a great example of how students at W&L treat one another and are happy and willing to help one another.
” As Kirgis Fellow Whitney Lomax commented, “I think this program is important because it emphasizes the community aspect that makes W&L different from many law schools. It is valuable to get the message across early that the upperclassmen are a great resource, and let new students know that at least one person who survived their first year in law school will be there to help them survive it too.” This reality is perhaps further reinforced by the sheer volume of applications Associate Dean for Student Services, Sidney Evans, who administers and oversees the program, receives each year for the available positions. Every year, there are far more interested students than available slots, and this speaks volumes about the collegiality of our campus and just how central this program is to the W&L first year experience.

Underscoring this impression, Kirgis Fellow Kate Lester observed, ” The Kirgis Fellows are the first people who interact with the 1Ls at Washington &Lee and first impressions can mean a lot.  Having a strong group of students welcoming the new first years can help ease some of the stress and fear that comes with starting law school.  I think it is also important to have the Kirgis Fellows as a resource separate from the faculty and staff. “

The Kirgis Fellow program is a central and integral part of the first year experience at W&L Law, and, as, Kirgis Fellow Gene Hamilton, noted, “The program as a whole is vital. If you don’t think so, imagine what starting law school would be like without it.” While the true value of such a program will always be difficult to quantify, there is little doubt that incoming students greatly appreciate the guidance and support of their upper-level peers. In the words of Kirgis Fellow Jeremy Holt, “Honestly, I think describing the value of the Kirgis Fellow program in words is nearly an impossible task.  The essence of this program is best measured by the looks of relief on the faces of incoming students as they realize in the first few moments with their Kirgis Fellow that everything is going to be okay.”

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