Make Each Year Count

We wanted to take a moment to make you aware of a new webpage highlighting our three-year curricular progression. This page contains a number of videos featuring interviews with faculty and students about each year of legal education at our law school. We hope you will take a moment to review these resources as you seek to learn more about our curricular offerings and educational philosophy.

As you know, W&L Law has an innovative third year curriculum in which students effectively begin their professional lives while in law school. They are challenged in a variety of settings, ranging from practicum courses to clinics and externships. Through these experiences, they learn and encounter the law as lawyers do: through client’s problems. As a result, they shift from thinking like a law student to thinking like a lawyer, and they make this transition in an educational environment in which they are supported, in which feedback is the norm and in which they have the freedom to pursue ideas and, perhaps most importantly, make mistakes. If you ask our current third-year students, they will tell you they are working harder than they have ever worked in law school. The classes are harder. The expectations are higher. But it is a different kind of challenge from the previous two years. Because there also exists an identifiable nexus between this work and their future professional lives, they will also tell you they are really enjoying this year. In the coming months, we will feature a number of blog posts from current third-year students in which they discuss just what they are doing in the practicum courses, externships and clinical experiences.

However, rather than talking about a single year, we would like to discuss how each year of our law school curriculum fits together in a linear progression, one in which students progress from beginning law student to more advanced law student to effectively functioning as a practicing lawyer. Our program is not two years of academic study followed by one year of practice, but three years of demanding, intellectually rigorous legal education. After all, law school is three years. Shouldn’t each one count?

Our first-year curriculum sets the foundation for our students’ subsequent years of study. During this year, students encounter the areas of the law that will serve as the building blocks for their more advanced, upper-level courses. Admittedly, this is the general purpose of the first year at every law school. However, what we believe makes the first year at W&L Law truly unique is our faculty’s accessibility, their commitment to teaching and their willingness to assist our students as they adjust to life in law school.

Obviously, a great deal of public attention has been focused on the demanding nature of the 1L year, and there is little doubt that it is challenging. However, at W&L Law, students do not encounter these challenges on their own. Most (if not all) of our first-year professors have open-door policies. Furthermore, each semester, all students take one core course in a small section of about twenty students in which they receive personalized instruction in legal writing from a full-time member of the law faculty. A few of our students have already discussed their small section experiences (see here and here), but there is little doubt that this course plays a pivotal role in the first-year educational experience at our law school. In many ways, it embodies what our law school is all about. Small classes. Student-faculty interaction. Personal instruction. As you might imagine, given the small size of this class, students also get to know their classmates well, forging friendships that often stretch beyond their time in Lexington.

In their small section courses, students have the opportunity to cultivate a close relationship with a professor as they sharpen their writing skills. As you know, writing is the primary currency of the legal profession, and, as our students will tell you, they spend most of their first year writing. In most small sections, students have a different writing assignment each week, and these assignments serve as fodder for the writing conferences each student has with his professor after each assignment. Admittedly, learning how to write like a lawyer is one of the most (if not the most) difficult aspects of the first year. However, at W&L Law, students receive a tremendous amount of support as they cultivate this essential professional skill.

During their second year at W&L Law, students engage in an even more advanced and challenging course of legal study as they seek to identify and pursue their interests in particular areas of the law. As many of our second-year students will tell you, there is sort of a secret in law school: While a great deal of popular attention has been focused on the first year, the second year is in many ways much harder. There are a lot of different reasons for this. Students are more engaged outside the classroom (Journals, Moot Court, leadership roles in extracurricular organizations, etc.). They are conducting job searches that take time, energy and often require them to be away from campus for several days. However, a big reason for this year’s difficulty is the complexity of the classes they are taking.

One of student’s noted this difference in an earlier post, but there is little doubt professors expect more from second-year students. Consequently, during this year, students move beyond just learning the law and engage in a deeper course of analysis, one that will requires them to explore the practical, legal, philosophical and strategic issues surrounding challenging and often timely legal questions. As a result of this deeper investigation, students begin developing professional judgment, a sense of the important role advocates play in shaping legal controversies and take greater responsibility for their professional growth. However, just as with their first year, students do not do this alone. They continue to be supported by their professors. In fact, during this year, many of these relationships begin to take on a mentoring aspect, with students regularly turning to faculty members with class questions, but also for job advice and recommendations on which classes to take.

In summary, we believe we have a curricular progression that challenges students in distinct ways throughout their time in Lexington. Each year has a defined purpose, and this learning sequence is rooted in the basic assumption that each year of law school should build upon the lessons of its predecessor but also present new and different challenges while pushing you further along the continuum from beginning law student to lawyer-to-be. At the culimination of this experience we believe students are truly prepared to begin their professional lives. Law school is three years. Make Each Year Count.

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