My Small Section

by Jessica Unger

As previously noted, two of our current first-year students will be periodically blogging about their experiences at W&L Law. Today, Jessica Unger takes on the subject of the first-year small section. What is a small section? Well, at W&L Law, we do not do “sections” (i.e. a cohort of 100 or 150 students with whom you have every class) like a great many other law schools. With only 134 people or so, our first-year class is too small to divide in this way. During your 1L year, you will have a range of class sizes. You will have a larger class of seventy, two classes of around forty and a smaller class of twenty or twenty-five. This smaller class is your “small section.” You will have one during both semesters of your first year, and it is a substantive class led by a full-time professor in which you are also learning legal writing. This means a professor is teaching you how to write like a lawyer. While this may not seem like such a big deal, writing is the principal currency of the legal profession, and to be a good lawyer, you absolutely have to be a good writer. In case you are curious, here are the professors who are teaching first-year small sections this fall: Margaret Howard, David Millon, Adam Scales, Joan Shaughnessy, Scott Sundby, Sam Calhoun). Sorry for the longest editorial introduction ever…

 One of the great things about W&L is the small class size. The school specifically aims to keep its class sizes small, and this makes for a collegial feel, great student-to-faculty ratio, and individualized attention. And during both semesters of your first-year, you will have a small class of twenty to twenty-five students. At W&L, this class is what is called your “small section.”

Okay, so what is so great about a small section? Well, being in a small section gives you a unique opportunity to really get to know a professor well. After we turned in one of our first major writing assignments (you spend a lot of your first semester writing memoranda), we went to my small section professor’s (Professor Howard) house for dinner. She even sent some of us home with leftovers! It was great spending time with Professor Howard outside of class, and, at our law school, these dinners are part of every first-year small section experience. At least once in a semester, each small section gets together as a group with their professor for dinner. How many schools emphasize this kind of interaction? More importantly, at how many schools do the professors seem genuinely interested in getting to know their students? At W&L, this kind of contact is the norm, and one more thing that makes this law school feel personal and friendly.

Naturally, this level of personal attention extends to the classroom. Each time we have a memo due (we have two large memoranda due this semester), every one of us has an individual conference with Professor Howard. Legal writing is one of the hardest things about the first-year of law school. It’s just so different than any writing you’ve ever done. The audience is different. The style is different. The expectations are different. Not to mention the fact that, for the first time in likely a long time, your drafts come back from your professor covered in a fair amount of ink (trust me, this takes some getting used to). But, at W&L, you are not simply handed your draft and expected to decipher the comments on your own. Your professor actually takes the time to sit down and discuss her feedback with you.

These meetings typically take twenty minutes, and with twenty-four students in my class, this requires a tremendous commitment from Professor Howard. Just do the math: 24 meetings at twenty minutes a meeting? That’s eight hours of meetings. Clearly just giving us back our drafts and not meeting with us would be way more efficient (and assuredly easier), but this kind of student-faculty interaction is just part of the W&L experience. In fact, it’s a lot of the reason why I came to this law school. I felt like W&L was a place where my professors would genuinely care about me and my development, and the fact that Professor Howard is willing to take so much time to meet with each one of the students in our small section says a lot about just how she feels about us.

During my conferences, Professor Howard and I sit and talk about my draft, the edits I need to make and any questions I have. And if I have additional questions or concerns, I can always come back. Professor Howard and my other professors go above and beyond to teach their students as well as possible. It is clear that teaching is something they take very seriously. They are available, and they are more than happy to help outside of the classroom setting. During your first-year of law school, you are going to have a lot of questions. This is just part of the process. It is nice to know that your professor is not only happy to answer your questions, but is eager for this contact, wants to get to know you and encourages you to stop by her office.

On top of the relationship you will form with your small section professor, you will also get to know the other students in your small section really well. In my small section, we are always in contact with one another, and we hang out outside of class. We have extremely similar schedules, mostly with many of the same professors. Because of this, we are doing a lot of the same work and dealing with the same challenges, and we often turn to one another for support. Law school is hard, and there will definitely be disappointments and setbacks (and also good news, I promise). It is so nice to be surrounded by people you like, with whom you enjoy spending time when you want take a break or relax, and to whom you can turn to when things get rough. In my opinion, that’s what being a member of the W&L community is all about.

To me, the first-year small section is, in many ways, a great example of just makes W&L Law unique. It’s small. It’s personal. You spend a lot of time with your classmates (and, consequently, get to know them well). You meet with your professor regularly and, consequently, get to know her well. And offering legal writing in a smaller class is clearly reflective of not only our school’s belief in the importance of this essential professional skill but also in the value of student-faculty interaction and individualized instruction.

For me and a lot of my friends, these are all reasons why we chose to attend W&L Law. But what’s perhaps even better, or at the very least, more important, is they have all also been a very real part of our first-year experience. Our classes have been small. Our professors absolutely know who we are, and they genuinely care about us. And we have all made some great friends. And, to be perfectly honest, I really can’t imagine law school any other way.

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