With less than a month left in the 2013-2014 academic year, we asked several of our third-year students to reflect upon their time at W&L Law. Today, Ben Willson takes on the topic.
I came to Washington and Lee in spite of the third-year experiential curriculum. I am graduating from W&L one of its most enthusiastic advocates. Let me explain what changed.
As a prospective student, I was wary of the idea of “missing out” on an entire year of legal academic coursework. Having been out of the classroom for nearly a decade, I was thirsty for theory and eager to pore over books and discuss legal principles. I was afraid that this innovative program at W&L was an over-reaction to a new and difficult market in legal education, and that it tended to reduce law school—which in my mind had always been a bookish institution—to a trade school.
I came anyway, because my visit to the school and my discussions with faculty and students convinced me that W&L was a place that was serious about both the academic and the experiential, and that was good enough.
Looking back after three years, I am fully satisfied with my academic training, and fully satisfied with my practical training. I enjoyed the coursework immensely, especially Contracts, Constitutional Law, Remedies, and Administrative Law. The real highlights of my three years, however, were not in the classroom. It was in the experiential modules of the curriculum—Trial Advocacy Practicum, Appellate Advocacy Practicum, the Immersion session, Black Lung Legal Clinic—as well as in the Moot Court Program, that I actually grew and developed and changed.
The moments that will be preserved in my memory of this place are almost all from my practical experiences: Standing at the podium in the Moot Court Room with my heart in my throat, my friends seated behind me, and a panel of federal and state appellate judges on the bench before me in the annual John W. Davis Competition. (That panel will include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito next year!) Sitting on the edge of my seat in the chambers of the Supreme Court of Virginia, listening to attorneys argue a case that I had argued the week before back in Lexington in front of the senior-most Justice of that Court, who was my Appellate Advocacy professor. Watching oral arguments in the Supreme Court of the United States with that same Justice, and sharing thoughts and impressions with him and my classmates over lunch afterwards. Meeting with clients of the Black Lung Legal Clinic and realizing that there are people who care a great deal more about how well we do our jobs even than we do.
Perhaps the moment that changed me most occurred during my Trial Advocacy Practicum. It was the moment when I “caught the fever” for arguing a case to a jury. The culminating event of the semester was a mock jury trial in the Moot Court Room with our professor—a Lynchburg trial judge—presiding, and an actual jury of volunteers from the community empanelled to hear our case. My partners and I had prepared for the big event carefully, relying on all that we had been taught in Civil Procedure and Evidence class, in the immersion program, and throughout that semester of the practicum. When the jury filed into the jury box and took their seats, however, I realized that I was experiencing what practicing law is fundamentally all about: those twelve people who I’d never met sitting together in a box waiting for me to convince them that my client’s right and the other guy’s is wrong.
After closing arguments, we turned on a closed-circuit video feed and watched as they walked into the jury room, entered the camera’s field of view, and took their seats around the table. As they began to discuss the case, I was amazed to hear one of them use a turn of phrase I had given them in my argument. It was fascinating to see the fruits of our labors of persuasion echoing through their deliberations, and ultimately convincing them to find for us.
I am convinced that experiences like these are simply not as available in schools where the curriculum is packed with advanced academic courses through the third year. Those theoretical courses are wonderful—and I enjoyed all of mine—but art is long and life is short, and the exposure, motivation, confidence, and jump-start on the legal profession that the experiential program gave me is something that I would urge any prospective student not to miss out on.