Higher Education Practicum

Today, we continue our look at the third year’s practicum course requirement with a blog post from one of our third year students, Tyler Laughinghouse. Last semester, Tyler was enrolled in the Higher Education practicum. In the course catalog, this course is described as follows:

“A practicum simulating private law practice and in-house counsel practice doing legal work on behalf of universities, including constitutional and statutory compliance issues, such as matters involving constitutional and civil rights law compliance, and issues involving university labor, finance, governance, and safety/security matters. The course will employ context based and integrative learning techniques as the educational format. Students will work in teams to represent students, faculty members, university trustees, university administrators, alumni student organizations, public interest groups, and other parties in a variety of hypothetical problems and exercises requiring strategic thinking, critical analysis of legal principles, and understanding of the cultural, political, and social traditions of American colleges and universities.”

Here are Tyler’s thoughts:

“We want to sue! And we want to sue now! We need that $7 million donation! You are our lawyers, we need to do something,” exclaimed the College’s President.  I looked to my two colleagues. We all had that same look on our face: how were we supposed to tell the College President that suing the donor was a bad idea.  We had researched the issue. We had printed out cases and statutes. The College had a case. It might win. But, we were confident that going to court was not sound advice. But all the cases in the world couldn’t prepare us for the look on the President’s face.  I cleared my throat and delivered the news. I didn’t rely on the case law or complicated legal analysis.  Instead, I told the President that taking this case to court would cost the College millions in litigation, it would upset donors and alumni, and it would kill the College’s reputation. He sat back, looking confused.  We could tell this meeting was far from over.  We went back and forth with the President for over an hour.  We suggested different alternatives, from complex mediation plans to simple phone calls to donors. But in the end, we ultimately convinced the President that suing was not in the College’s best interests.

Welcome to the Higher Educational Law Practicum at W&L. In the wake of the recession, Jefferson & Madison College was struggling. Its endowment had been hit hard by a falling stock market.  It alumni donations were cut in half.  The IRS was giving it heat.  And a local bank was threatening to stop construction on a $30 million art center.  The College had to do something to stop their financial freefall. And this is where we came in.  As in-house counsel at the College, we were asked to advise the College as it tried to regain its financial footing. When the College suggested that they eliminate tenure for all its professors, we were there to advise against it.  When the College wanted to fire an outspoken employee, we were there to help the College weigh the costs of a potential employment discrimination lawsuit. And whenever the bottom line clouded the College’s decision-making, we were there to help the College remember the importance of donor and alumni relations.  But the College didn’t always ask or follow our advice.  For example, when the College tried to make a quick $75 million from selling some artwork, the College’s students filed a lawsuit. After several weeks of drafting pleadings, working through discovery requests, and writing motions, the lawsuit made it to court, which required us to present oral arguments in front of the judge.

When I started at W&L three years ago, I knew that my third year experience would be different.  I knew that I had to participate in externships and “practicums.” However, to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what that meant.  But now – with one semester in the 3L program behind me – I can say that the 3L program has been one of my most challenging and rewarding experiences in law school to date.  This class was a crash-course in real legal practice.  Led by an esteemed faculty of eight lawyers from McGuire Woods, our class of twelve students had to draft memos, prepare documents for litigation, and present our recommendations to the Board.  Overall, this class took me out of my comfort zone.  It required me to become an expert in different and sometimes unfamiliar legal fields.  However, and this was the most challenging aspect of this course, this class required me to constantly keep an eye to practical solutions. As a third year of law student, I am comfortable talking about legal concepts; I can cite cases at the drop of a hat.  However, explaining complex legal concepts to clients or suggesting non-legal solutions requires a different skill set. And, after this course, I know that I can confidently walk into a both a Boardroom or Courtroom.

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