Thursday, January 31, 2013
I am sure that most of you are aware of Professor William Henderson's evaluation of Washington & Lee's third-year experiential program as highly successful. The story has been featured throughout the legal blogesphere, and the ABA Journal has picked up on this very important story. (here)
Three questions remain. How did W & L develop their program? What is their program? Why is it working so well?
The answer to the first question (How did W & L develop their program) is in this article: Reforming the Third Year of Law School by Lyman Johnson, Robert T. Danforth, and David Millon.
A detail answer to what is the substance of their program appears here: Litigation and Transactional Immersions by James Moliterno.
The answer to why the program is working so well requires a book by itself. To give a short answer, let me quote from a recent book on learning, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambose et. al. (p. 5): "Students must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, they must also practice combining them and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Finally, students must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn." In other words, not only do students need doctrinal knowledge, they need to be able to apply that knowledge to concrete situations. Traditional law school teaching methods have done a good job of teaching doctrinal knowledge, but, for the most part, law schools have failed to teach students how to apply their knowledge to solving problems. This last part is what the Washington & Lee program has accomplished so well.
This is what James Moliterno has said about the Washington & Lee program: "Experiential education is not, as some would belittle it, merely skills teaching. Instead, it is the primary vehicle for professional enculturation and a valuable vehicle for teaching law and theory. Learning by doing is more than mere activity-based exercises. Learning by doing is a role transition, in this instance from student to lawyer. Guided activities in role allow students to test and adopt the professional role, with the guidance of an expert mentor and teacher."
Update: Professor David Millon of Washington and Lee has sent me the following comment: "I would add to Jim's important comment at the end of your piece, about professionalism enculturation, that our efforts to teach lawyering skills are also designed to give the students a 'tool kit' that they can use in their practica and clinics. The point is to help them begin to learn law and think about it and apply it the way lawyers do (rather than the way law students do), which requires introduction to the basic skills that lawyers use in their professional lives. No one at W&L thinks that our efforts at skills instruction— which are extensive— will somehow be sufficient to allow our graduates truly 'to hit the ground running.' Even so, and ironically, the claim could be made that it is not until the third year that we really begin to teach our students to 'think like lawyers.'"