Saturday, April 20, 2013

Practicum-ly Useless: The Washington and Lee Law 3L Program.

Finally, the law school scam is sinking. There will be about 56,000 applicants this year for the 45,000 One-L seats  at the 201 ABA-approved law schools. That is down 17% over last year, and down from 100,000 in 2004. Another couple of years of significant declines and we will see some of these institutions merge, layoff faculty, even close.

Yet, swimming strongly against the tide, Washington and Lee School of Law (W&L) has actually seen an increase in applicants, an achievement matched by only three other law schools. [1] Now, to open on a note of generosity, W&L is known to have some appealing qualities: it is moderately forthcoming in offering  partial scholarships, it is located in a very pretty area of the Virginia countryside, it kept a tight lid on class size until very recently, and it has a whole bunch of charming little traditions. [2]

But, undoubtedly, the main reason that W&L is so popular among law school applicants at a time when almost every other school is experiencing an applicant crunch is W&L's ballyhooed third year "practicum" program. At W&L, law students spend two years studying doctrine instead of three. The third year mostly revolves around semester long role-playing games, or as  W&L law Prof. James Moliterno puts it, "elaborate simulation courses that we call practicums."[3] When the W&L third year program was announced in 2008, it elicited yelps from interdisciplinary professors, those elevated souls who are offended that law school might have something to do with, you know, training kids to practice law. [4]

I hate to take the same side as the interdisciplinary folks in the debate, but I strongly suspect their skepticism is justified, [5] and I say so despite being a proponent of an apprenticeship/ clinical model of legal education. It appears to me that the W&L program involves dabbling, not training, since the first two years of law school at W&L are just same old, same old. But worse, the vaunted third year, overwhelmingly, involves simulations rather than clinics.

Here is a ten minute-long W&L promotional video explaining the third year practicums, and I encourage readers to watch and decide if they think W&L is on the right track.

My view is this: Law is a learn-by-doing profession. In Canada, for instance, legal education includes a mandatory year of articling. A fledgling lawyer gets a knack for representing real clients by doing just that, by representing real clients, as opposed to figments of a law professor's imagination. And real training takes place in an environment where a young lawyer can constantly observe, interact, and  preferably work with more experienced attorneys. I do not believe that a law student can learn to be a lawyer by going to school and playing a role playing game with other, equally clueless law students. This is especially so when the professor who thought up the role playing scenario has limited practice experience and is constantly hovering over the students in order to instruct them on  the "theory" of each lawyerly act. I want to specifically except trial advocacy, i.e. mock trials, where it is possible to create a reasonable facsimile of the real thing for training purposes.

And needless to say the more, uh, exotic "practicum" experiences are unlikely to provide a law student with marketable practice skills or dazzle a potential employer. Here I speak of W&L's Global Sovereigns Dispute Practicum and its International Human Rights Practicum. But even the more seemingly grounded practicums are described in fluent academese, and so trigger my skepticism. Take, for instance, Law 301P, the "Higher Education Practicum," which is described in W&L's online catalogue in these terms: "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."[6] Somehow, I doubt that this practicum is a feeder into jobs as University general counsel, however thoroughly the graduates have mastered "the cultural, political, and social traditions of American colleges and universities."

But it is not just I who am saying that W&L's third year practicum is a failure. The legal job market is saying that too. Have a look at W&L's placement outcomes, and compare it to the overall national average. Here is the percentage of W&L law graduates who obtained a  full-time, bar-required job within nine months of graduation vs. the national average. [7],[8]

2011:  Washington & Lee: 55%     National Average: 54.9%
2012:  Washington & Lee: 49.2%  National Average: 56.2%     
And consider that W&L, as a US News Top 30 school, should score well above the average, not at or below. Also, consider that law schools, on average, experienced a miniscule improvement in their abysmal placement records in 2012 over 2011. W&L, by contrast, experienced a significant decline. 

Tellingly, as well, not a single W&L law grad in either 2011 or 2012 tried to go solo. Not that that is ever a wise idea, but if recent W&L grads truly felt confident in the real world practice skills they derived from their third year of law school, you would think a few would give it a try, especially since half of them could not get a full-time law job.

Again, I hate to say this about a well-meaning attempt at radical curricular change-- but, to quote a famous legal philosopher: "Nonsense on Stilts."
notes and additional links.


[2] But generosity aside, I recommend Third Tier Reality's recent profile of W&L (as well as its profiles of other law schools).

(at 1:15 to 1:18)

[4]   See the lengthy and interesting discussion threads following the linked article and blog posts, dated January 31, 2013, January 29, 2013, and March, 2008. Each thread elicited numerous faculty comments, pro and con.

[5]  "Pushkin" shows up in the thread on the ABA journal article, linked at note 4 above, at Jan 31, 2013 1:22 PM,  to assert that the W&L third year program is hype. For once, this ubermensch may have a point.

[6]  Here is a link to all the W&L practicums.  Scroll down to the "practicums" section, and then click on the link to each course to read the course description.
(scroll down)


[8] Again, in fairness to the place, though its overall full-time law job placement stats are dismal, it does comparatively well in the percentage of grads it places in federal clerkships, ranking 32nd in that regard in 2012 and 16th in 2011.

Using federal clerkships as a proxy for job prospects for the very top of the class, one might conclude that W&L is a school that may worth attending for a semester if some of your costs have been discounted, but you should definitely drop out at the end of that first semester if you don't end up in the top 20% of your class.


  1. Good work once again, dybbuk.

    With so many underserved and poor clients, law schools would be IDEAL places to set up practical programs that help them. We all know that nobody can actually make a living from these clients, despite there being plenty of them around, but surely we could use them for training?

    Sadly, the reason we don't boils down to one (or two) simple facts:

    1 - Law professors don't know how to practice law.

    (and 2 - Law professors don't want to dirty their hands and risk being seen as less valuable by stooping so low. How could they justify their huge salaries if they were doing no-fault divorces instead of writing lofty legal articles that nobody reads or understands?)

    That really is what it boils down to.

    The program at W&L was set up by Dean Rodney Smolla. He is the epitome of striving law professor, climbing the ladder as fast as he could and fucking over institutions on his way. He's now president of Furman University, I believe, dumping W&L after a few years. He's all about the money and the prestige. I'll give him some credit for stepping up at W&L, but the program is the classic "in name only" type of bullshit. If he really wanted to make a change, he could have set up a groundbreaking practical program that relied on real life stuff, not silly simulations and things that are written by and run by professors who have no idea what they are doing. He had the power, but he blew it.

    Look, Professors and Deans, it's really not hard to set up a good practical program over two or three years of law school. Keep the first year as it is. Whatever. Second year needs real client contact; pay a handful of local attorneys to come in and really deal with some actual client issues, soup to nuts. Third year needs to be nothing but client issues with perhaps a couple of bar-review type classes to go over some more law. Even keep a two-track program, where some students can keep the traditional theory-only JD. But don't deny those who want practical training.

    The simplicity of setting up such a program is undeniable (although committees of academics always have a way of making stuff 100 times more difficult that it needs to be). Just set up clinics, force participation, and make them a major part of the last two years, not a bullshit dirty little option hidden away in some basement office.

  2. The principal problem with all of these clinics and practicums and the renewed focus on training "real lawyers" is that it doesn't add jobs to the market place, and in fact may actually take them away.

    Call it the 1st Law of Law School Thermodynamics: nothing a law school does can expand the amount of legal work in the United States.

    Virginia, especially, is overstocked to the brim with lawyers from name-brand schools. All these programs do is let the law schools claim that they are training more "practice-ready" attorneys to make themselves feel slightly better about the dire situation.

    It's much easier to throw a man overboard if you hand him a paddle and two wooden planks first. Maybe he'll build a boat on the way down, or something.

  3. Aside from W&L, who are the 3 law schools that saw applications rise?

  4. How can a school be ranked 26th in us news when it has such lousy job outcomes? Washington & Lee is 135th in the class of 2012 ABA employment report ( Faulkner is 133rd, Liberty 128, Touro 131, Regent 125. W & L has the worst job placement rate of any law school in Virginia in 2012, except for Appalacian. Is someone cooking the books at W & L?

    1. I've done a spreadsheet, which I will publish soon. If you take the long-term, full-time law jobs and subtract the full-time solos, as well as the full-time long-term school funded jobs, W&L rises to 119th place.

      But that is a very minor quibble. The difference between W&L's selectivity/ reputation and its job outcomes for graduates is shocking, and W&L needs to provide some explanations and apologies to its students and prospective students.

    2. You are correct that W&L did not do that well in the statistics which count every job the same, and which rely on the schools themselves to do the counting(which may make a difference with respect to some marginal job situations).

      It is not just clerkships where W&L does pretty well compared to other schools, but also biglaw. Here is a ranking generated by a third party, NLJ, which counted the jobs themselves rather than relying on the schools to do it, and W&L is roughly consistent with its rank:

      There is not really one statistic which is going to tell you the whole story.

    3. So what? How does the fact that those who have jobs have good jobs help those who don't? According to the Class of 2012 ABA Employment Report 49.23% of W and L students are employed. ( How can you make over 50% unemployment look good?

  5. 12:16 -- if W&L is reporting lower employment stats than these other schools, then they are not "cooking the books" as well as the other schools you mentioned, apparently.

    1. I am probably being totally naive, but is it possible that W&L's famous Honor Code leads them to report slightly more honest figures?

    2. I doubt the honor code has anything to do with it. Virginia has a famous honor code and so do a bunch of other schools. Heck, I'd bet Villanova has one. They're meaningless when the chips are on the table.

    3. There are other ways to cook the books other than employment. Student-faculty ratio, gpa, lsat, ext.

    4. The honor code applied to the students not the Dean.

  6. Where do universities and law schools get the moral authority to enforce honor codes? Before this generation their main purposes was to preserve learning and educate the next generation. Now most of them are businesses whose main purpose is to give high salaries to the presidents and deans. How can universities turn out ethical graduates when they gave grades to athletes who never attended class or wrote a paper? How can a law school expect to turn out professionals when they lured students with bait-and-switch scholarships and deceptive placement figures? Why do law schools teach ethics at all?

  7. From TTR. Washington and Lee’s determination of its student-faculty ratio is also suspicious. They claim to have a student-faculty ratio of 9.52 to 1 on their web page. They also state that they have 464 students.

    Here are the ABA rules for determining faculty-student ratio.

    Interpretation 402-1
    In determining whether a law school complies with the Standards, the ratio of the number of full-time
    equivalent students to the number of full-time equivalent faculty members is considered.

    (1) In computing the student/faculty ratio, full-time equivalent teachers are those who are employed as
    full-time teachers on tenure track or its equivalent who shall be counted as one each plus those who
    constitute “additional teaching resources” as defined below. No limit is imposed on the total number
    of teachers that a school may employ as additional teaching resources, but these additional teaching
    resources shall be counted at a fraction of less than 1 and may constitute in the aggregate up to 20
    percent of the full-time faculty for purposes of calculating the student/faculty ratio.

    (A) Additional teaching resources and the proportional weight assigned to each category include:
    (i) teachers on tenure track or its equivalent who have administrative duties beyond those
    normally performed by full-time faculty members: 0.5;
    (ii) clinicians and legal writing instructors not on tenure track or its equivalent who teach a full
    load: 0.7; and
    (iii) adjuncts, emeriti faculty who teach, non-tenure track administrators who teach, librarians
    who teach, and teachers from other units of the university: 0.2.

    Washington and Lee claims to have 35 full-time faculty, although in their specific list of faculty they only have 32. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say they have 35 full-time faculty. However, the two main deans don’t count because they “have administrative duties beyond those
    normally performed by full-time faculty members.” So Washington and Lee has 33 full-time faculty members.

    You can count up to 20% extra for additional teaching resources. Let’s give them the full 20%. That would be 8. Add 8 and 33 and you get 41 faculty.

    That gives a student-faculty ratio of 464 students to 41 faculty or 11.3 to 1. This is giving them the benefit of the doubt.

    Does anyone see anything wrong with my math or my assumptions? If they are correct, then Washington and Lee is claiming a lower student-faculty ratio than actually exists.

    1. Go back, count the visiting full time professors listed on the website, and try again.

  8. thanks for share..

  9. Have you seen Demleitner's letter defending the W & L program?

  10. Passed bar first time 18 years ago never made more than $39K. Quit 2 firms because they couldn't make payroll. Multiple professional recruiting firms have refused to help find me a job on the grounds that a JD is such a negative that JDs can't be placed in non-legal professions. Was fired from last "professional" job-despite 10 years of good employment record, and work ethic even my boss complimented, by a young new supervisor who said a JD was so irrelevant that he didn't want it in his organization. In my 40's with family to support. I now service cars and do janitorial work for less money than I made before I attended law school 20 years ago. In the past, have mowed yards and worked retail to supplement lawyer job. A law degree is like a criminal conviction-a black mark you can never get rid of. Law school will ruin your life.