Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Legal Education Reform Works! The Success Story at Washington & Lee.

This blog has often used the third-year experiential program at Washington & Lee School of Law as a model for legal education reform.  Now, a detailed study by Professor William Henderson on The Legal Whiteboard demonstrates that Washington & Lee's program has delivered "a significantly better education to 3L students."

Professor Henderson writes, "Here it is in a nutshell. There is empirical evidence that Washington & Lee’s experiential 3L curriculum is delivering a significantly better education to 3L students—significantly better than prior graduating classes at W&L, and significantly better than W&L’s primary competitors. Moreover, at a time when total law school applicants are on the decline, W&L’s getting more than its historical share of applicants and getting a much higher yield. When many schools are worried about revenues to survive next year and the year after, W&L is worried about creating the bandwidth needed to educate the surplus of students who enrolled in the fall of 2012, and the backlog of applicants that the school deferred to the fall of 2013."

He continues, "there is substantial evidence that the W&L 3L program delivers comparative value.  The evidence is based on several years' worth of data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE). I received permission from Professor James Moliterno, someone who took a leadership role in building W&L’s third year program, to share some of the key results (each school controls access to its LSSSE data.) . . . .  

But before getting into empirical evidence, I want to put squarely on the table the most sobering finding that likely applies to virtually all of legal education. It is this: On several key LSSSE metrics, W&L has made impressive gains vis-à-vis its own historical benchmarks and its primary rival schools. . . .  Here is the bottom line:  Traditional legal education, when it is measured, does not fare very well. Yet, as W&L shows, substantial improvement is clearly possible."

Professor Henderson does have a word of caution: "But even for this leader, there remains enormous room for improvement."

He concludes, "The example of the Washington & Lee 3L experiential year ought to be a watershed for legal education. We can no longer afford to ignore data.  Through LSSSE, high quality comparative data are cheap and comprehensive.  And that information, as we have seen, can significantly improve the value of a legal education."

This is very exciting news.  As we have said numerous times on this blog, the key to survival for many law schools may be the ability to do something new that educates students better and, consequently, draws students to that law school.  The success of the Washington & Lee program supports this hypothesis.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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