The Practicum Courses

Today, we continue our review of our third year curriculum with a look at the practicum course requirement. Over the next week or so, we will feature posts from students and professors reflecting on these courses.

All third year students are required to take four elective courses, one real-client experience (either a clinic, an externship or a Transnational Human Rights program) and three additional electives taught in a problems-based, practicum style. And, as you might guess by their description, these courses are very different from the lecture-based courses students take during their first and second years at W&L Law. In fact, in many ways, the practicum courses represent the biggest change for students during their third year.

In the dictionary, “practicum” is defined as follows: “A school or college course, especially one in a specialized field of study, that is designed to give students supervised practical application of previously studied theory.”  And this is what the third year practicum courses are designed to do: Allow students to see and experience how the law works in actual practice. These courses are rooted in the idea that the best way for students to learn what lawyers do is to actually do what lawyers do. In their third year, students move beyond the more theoretical discussions of their first two years to actually applying the law to client problems (both real and simulated).

The practicum courses represent the simulated part of the learning equation described above. These classes are taught in an active, hands-on, problems-based approach, with students assisting fictionalized clients with the very sort of problems that might arise if they were an attorney practicing in the topic area touched upon by the course. Students no longer read cases and spend class time discussing judicial opinions or black letter law. After all, these classes are designed to approximate the intellectual and practical rigors of the profession, and lawyers certainly don’t sit around all day discussing abstract questions of law.

Furthermore, these classes’ simulated quality allows professors to expose students to a broader, more complex and thornier range of legal questions and problems than they could through a clinic or an externship. There are practicum courses offered during the third year (Federal Energy Regulation, Cross-Borders Transactions, Entertainment Law, to name a few) that would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to offer as clinical or externship experiences. These courses run the gamut of the representational spectrum, touching upon many areas of both litigation and transactional practice. And there is no limit to the courses that can be taught in a practicum style. As our professors will tell you, any course can be taught in this way. It only requires the professor leading the course to think about the subject matter in a different way.

Admittedly, law school looks a little (or a lot) different during the third year. For example, there are no exams, and students are evaluated continuously throughout the semester. In addition, “class” during the third year looks very different than during the first and second years. Gone are the Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday strictures. Classes meet less regularly and students do more work in groups. A practicum course may meet once a week, or every day for two weeks straight, only to be followed by a week or two when students work with their classmates outside the classroom on an assignment. In these classes, professors function more like senior-level attorneys, teaching the law as necessary while directing and evaluating students’ work product through regular meetings.

As you might gather from the above comment, there is a great deal of student-faculty interaction built into these courses, with students regularly meeting with professors to discuss their submitted work . In these courses, the professor has an opportunity to mentor and advise a student in a way that would be almost impossible in the real world. Lawyers have less time than ever to mentor young attorneys. However, in the third year, professors have time to provide the kind of focused feedback that will support and help students as they take their first steps as practicing attorneys.

We hope the posts from students and professors we will feature over the next week will give you a better sense of how these courses actually work. There is little doubt that our students are doing their most complex and professionally-relevant work during their third year. However, as a result of our third year curricular reform, students now progress through their time at W&L Law in a truly linear way – moving from beginning law student to more advanced law student to lawyer to be over the course of their three years. For more about our curricular progression, please see our Make Each Year Count webpage.

For a listing (with descriptions) of the practicum courses offered in 2010-11, click here. For a listing of this year’s course offerings, please consult our online catalog (after jump, scroll down to the “Practicums” heading).

Be sure to check out the video below in which Professor Jim Moliterno discusses our practicum courses:

Click here to see all our blog coverage on the third year

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